Richard Reeves

Frenzy in the War Capital

WASHINGTON -- At a fund-raiser for a Democratic senator on Tuesday night, a diplomat began to discuss the day's events at the United Nations, saying that arms inspectors seem prepared to go to Iraq earlier than anyone had expected. A former secretary of state says with a hint of contempt: "That doesn't matter ...

"They want a war, and they're going to have a war," says the secretary. The small group around him nods. "They" around here means the White House.

Outside that building, the White House, the next day, there was a statement-making Rose Garden photo opportunity featuring President Bush and grim-faced members of Congress from both parties declaring their solidarity in the face of "imminent danger." One reporter in another small group says, "You know, most of those people actually think the war is a bad idea." He is cut off by a more important correspondent, saying impatiently: "That doesn't matter ...

"They want a war, and there's going to be a war." Others nod in agreement.

Then the reporters separated to report the words and nods of the president and his supporting cast of congressmen and women. The big newspapers were preparing excerpts of the Rose Garden war whoops. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Congress works, other members were speaking at a marathon session of the House International Affairs Committee, some of them actually against the coming war, but there was not a word of that in the papers read regularly here, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Washington Times.

Those voices don't matter now. None of them are important enough to make the news. One who is, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, is telling people in private that she will support the war. The Congress asked the Central Intelligence Agency for a report on its role in the war -- and the CIA refused to respond, saying, essentially, that war plans are none of Congress' business. The director of the CIA -- that's George Tenet, the know-nothing hero of Sept. 11 -- refused to appear (in secret, of course) before congressional committees because he was too busy meeting with the president and his aides at the White House. They run the war capital. Congress is a photo-op.

That is what it was like this week in Washington. The war capital is in a frenzy. The most impassioned anti-war words are not part of a debate. The somber men and women in Congress and the hard-faced men and women of the White House -- "they" -- are not listening. Most of them think the important decisions have been made -- the United States is going to invade Iraq no matter what -- and the nervous energy in the air here is generated by elected officials, appointed officials and former officials trying to make sure they are not caught on the losing side of the politics of the war.

The losing side is peace. Inspection, negotiation, hesitation, caution are for wimps. Those who argue more and more timidly for disarmament rather than regime change, or who try to raise questions about what will happen if the Iraqis launch missiles aimed at Israel, or what will happen after a war, short or long, win or lose, are dismissed as political naifs who risk being called cowards or traitors if things don't go the way the White House wants them to go.

Those who have grave doubts about the rush to battle -- a secret majority, I think -- are ready to join the war lovers in public. That is the way politics work. Nothing succeeds like success. The White House has won the pre-war debate here, and if the president has the guts to attack, right or wrong, the gutless know that no matter how badly things go in Iraq, they will have their backs and backsides covered in post-war debates. The way the game is played is that if this thing turns into a disaster, the first people the whoopers will blame will be those whose blood enthusiasm was not great enough.

There are few outside voices heard when the war capital is in heat. Ironically, one of the few dabs of outside information that made it through this week was in the feisty, right-wing Washington Times, which reported that congressional mail was running more than 10-to-1 against a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Does that matter? I doubt it.

They want a war.

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