Richard Reeves

George Bush as a Madman

WASHINGTON -- The time has come for some of us to consider the possibility that the wild and wacky bunch running the country these days may actually know what they are doing.

I don't mean that it is suddenly possible to follow the logic of Bush and Co.'s ranting that war is absolutely necessary this minute, before Saddam Hussein moves into the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia. But I do think there is now a possibility that the White House war dance just might produce victory without war.

Congress, the United Nations, Saudi princes, Saddam Hussein and other Arab tyrants, and the American people all seem to be coming to the same conclusion: Bush and Co. may actually be crazy enough to do what they say they will do, even if that may differ from day to day. So perhaps the time has come to give them what they want -- from the disarming of Iraq to the handing over of some of the true bad guys promoting terrorism around the globe.

The Bush strategy, if that's what it is, is not new. It was introduced, in our time, by President Nixon and his foreign policy confidant, Henry Kissinger, who called it the "madman theory." The idea was that Nixon would froth at the microphone so much about such things as nukes and endless war that the Soviet Union, China, the North Vietnamese, Palestinians and other possible American adversaries would back down before it was too late.

Nixon and Kissinger talked madman theory for hours, months and years at a time, with the unspoken assumption that Nixon would not have to stretch himself very much to play the role. It was a role, ironically, which had been defined by one of Kissinger's Harvard students, a very bright, very angry young man named Daniel Ellsberg, who may have played the madman even more effectively than Nixon. The president was a little nutty, but he was too smart by half to pull off the madman gambit on a world scale, though he was a hit playing it at home. There was just too much logic to Nixon, and he was surrounded by establishment types such as Melvin Laird, James Schlesinger and others who disregarded his "nuke 'em" orders with reassuring regularity.

Bush is certainly saner than Nixon was in his maddest days, but he seems overly dependent on men who were junior to Laird and Schlesinger in the 1970s. Two of those juniors were Donald Rumsfeld, who gave up a congressional seat to go into the Nixon White House, and his protege, a former intern named Dick Cheney. They often seem to have the dead eyes and cool demeanor of true madmen. The shouters in high places are usually harmless; it's the cold ones who are most scary.

But Bush and the cold fish -- Nixon thought Rumsfeld was a young man without passion or idealism -- have had a very good couple of weeks. At the moment, after months of calling Congress and the United Nations wimps, without apparent effect, they have goaded those talk, talk institutions into action. If Bush and the boys do indeed know what they are doing -- a real question, that -- they are close to victory without war. That is no small achievement.

With all the complaining and penny-pinching the United States does in regard to the United Nations, it is in fact a generally reliable extension of Western values, the democratic world and free markets. We may not always like what the U.N. does -- and even less what it says -- but it has almost never done anything in direct opposition to American wishes and whims.

In the current crisis of American manufacture, the United Nations is doing us, once again, the enormous favor of pushing our agenda and allowing us to ask for more and, if we choose, claim conditional victory. We are close now to being able to claim the victory without the unpleasant consequences of all-out war. The international system seems to be learning how to finesse war as the logical extension of politics. That's progress by any measure separate from the civilian levels of the Pentagon.

One more thing: Republican madmen have been touting war with Iraq as a Republican strategy for November's mid-term elections. Well, "victory" might turn out to be an even better strategy, perhaps not the moral equivalent of bloody slaughter, but at least the political equivalent.

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