The Poker Player in Chief

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George W. Bush abandoned his studied air of mild sedation only once during his prime-time press conference last week. His eyes lighted up when he was asked if he would call for another U.N. vote on Iraq. A poker metaphor escaped from his Inner Cowboy. "It's time for people to show their cards," he said, as if he actually enjoyed the prospect of a confrontation with France, Russia and the others. The tactic was unexpected; the belligerence, revealing. The President is ticked off, but he is confident, and he is calling France's bluff. Win or lose in the Security Council, he will prove America's power or the U.N.'s irrelevance.

His confidence is understandable. The war against terrorism is going gangbusters. There is optimism about a quick and successful campaign in Iraq. When the President and his advisers peer a month or so into the future, they see only good news: the world a safer and better place without Saddam; the French and Russians, hat in hand, hoping to become part of the postwar reconstruction; the Democrats, suitably daunted, ready to do the President's bidding in Congress; the stock market heading toward the stratosphere; businesses investing and consumers spending; and the thugs of the world cowering, having absorbed a lesson about American resolve.

Talk to a Bush supporter, and you hear giddy things. Talk to a Bush skeptic, and you hear the end of human life as we know it. In Washington last week, almost all the scenarios were extreme. "If you tear up all the rules and toss them in the air," said Ashton Carter, a Defense official in the Clinton Administration, now agonizing at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, "the results can be really good or really bad — but they're definitely going to be really different."

Actually, the likelihood is an unpredictable scatter of good and bad results. But Carter is speaking about the intensity of what is about to occur. The rules that have been violated are those that govern the etiquette of complex international relations — the rules of diplomacy. The notion, for example, that the President of the U.S. would challenge our oldest allies to a public showdown is quite remarkable. (Presidents usually do the precise opposite: they struggle to avoid any appearance of disunity.) This is a breathtaking gamble, and the question arises: Is it witting or not? Is the Administration's disdain for diplomatic precedent a strategy — a conscious effort to challenge the institutions and arrangements of the past 50 years — or merely a matter of presidential pique? The flattery, handholding and creative fudgery that are at the heart of diplomacy are the very sort of fancy-pants flummeries that the President abhors. This has been a radical experiment — John McCain's Straight Talk Express taken global — and the results have been dreadful. If we haven't actually lost a public-relations war to Saddam Hussein, we clearly haven't won.

It is true that Colin Powell was allowed to be diplomatic at the U.N. last fall, negotiating a unanimous vote on Security Council Resolution 1441, but that was an exception. Powell's bolder attempts at diplomacy — the attempt to negotiate with North Korea in 2001 and with Yasser Arafat in 2002 — have been thwarted by the White House. Arrogance has filled the vacuum. Significant allies like Turkey are bullied or bribed, or both; they are not consulted and not listened to. Even when the President says he wants to achieve a diplomatic solution, as in North Korea, he does so undiplomatically, against the advice of our allies, refusing to negotiate directly with the North Koreans. "This is a game of chicken," a diplomat told me, "and everyone except the President seems to understand that he is going to blink first."

Bush's plain talk is often bracing. His challenge to the U.N. over Iraq's intransigence is a good thing; it is what Bill Clinton should have done when Saddam Hussein thwarted inspections in 1998. And in the short run, Bush will have his way — in Iraq, certainly; rolling up al-Qaeda, probably; perhaps with Turkey and at the Security Council as well. But he has been extremely careless in the process, and there are bound to be consequences. The consequences in postwar Iraq are unknowable. The consequences in North Korea — the production and sale of plutonium, or a military effort to thwart such sales — could be cataclysmic. The transatlantic consequences may become more apparent after the war is over: the French, no doubt, have enjoyed their leading role in the current melodrama and may seek to make it permanent. They may attempt to organize a new alliance — a loose one, no doubt — to thwart American power. The portents are clear: it will be harder and harder for America to have its way, diplomatically, in the world.

George W. Bush seems destined to be a spectacular President — of some sort. He combines the idealism of Woodrow Wilson with the bravado of Theodore Roosevelt, but these were not always their best qualities. And he lacks the rigor, the love of learning, of either man. There is no ballast to this Administration, and we are going to war.