Richard Reeves

Does Bush Really Know What to Do in Iraq?

NEW YORK -- The latest word from the White House, relayed to the rest of us last Tuesday by the president's counsel, Alberto Gonzales, is that President Bush does not have to and does not intend to ask anyone for permission to go to war against Iraq because of the 1991 congressional vote authorizing Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the operational names for his father's Iraq war.

They're kidding, right? Leaving aside the fact that the Congress divided almost 50-50 in those 1991 votes, Gonzales might say that the president also has the right and authority to go to war against Vietnam, Germany, Japan, Italy, Mexico, Great Britain, and the states below the Mason-Dixon line.

The president's men and women look and act like serious people, until you compare what they are saying these days. In the 24 hours or so before Gonzales issued his latest Constitution-breaker, other Bushmen offered their thoughts, conflicting ones, on the question of what we are doing and why. Vice President Richard Cheney got the most attention, saying that we don't care what other countries think; we're going ahead with the business of destroying Iraq to make the world safe for democracy everywhere -- except in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Arab dictatorships.

Then came Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who made some sense, if you ignore the fact that he was saying the opposite of what was coming from Bush and Gonzales. "What's important on Iraq," said Rummy, "and on other important questions about terrorist states that are seeking to have weapons of mass destruction, is that our country engage in a somewhat elevated, thoughtful discussion about what free people ought to do given the circumstances of the 21st century."

Interesting. Perhaps he should send a note to the White House explaining that 1991 was in another century.

To clear things up, Mary Matalin, who works for Cheney, stepped up to say of recent stories about war preparations: "That's what is missing from these stories. Who could have imagined 12 years ago that extremists could get to our shores?"

Am I missing something? Isn't the lady saying that the circumstances were totally different when the Congress debated, and almost defeated, the resolution supporting Desert Storm?

So now we have the vice president saying, basically, that the president's mind is made up, that he will do what is right rather than popular, while others in the White House are calling for a national debate to help the president.

The confusion is great enough that the BBC News in London, seat of what may be our only strong friend in this proposed endeavor, reported Tuesday night that the Cheney speech was a signal the vice president and the president disagreed on Iraq. A rather foolish interpretation, I thought, but perhaps that was the only way foreigners could make any sense of the babble coming from Washington in one day.

Another interpretation could be: These people don't know what they are doing and are looking for light at the end of the tunnel. Or: Folks as dumb as the rest of us don't see that this is all a great bluff to scare Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, into allowing real inspections to determine whether he really is trying to nuke, gas and poison the rest of the world, beginning, presumably, with Israel.

Who knows? One astute observer, Lee Hamilton, former chaiorman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sees it this way, as he told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday: "Their public posture has to be, 'We welcome criticism.' To me, at least, the Cheney speech makes it clear that they aren't listening to it because they don't agree with it and they are going to proceed."

Proceed to where? To me, at least, the White House's public posture makes no sense because, whether or not they had decided to do something, public reaction at home and abroad has left them wondering whether they have overreached this time. And as confident as they try to sound, they don't know what to do next.

It's a dangerous posture, one that might lead to invasion to save face. We may be going to war because the people running the country right now don't know what to say next without sounding foolish -- once again.

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