Richard Reeves

Yogi Bush and Casey Rumsfeld

LOS ANGELES -- It turns out that President Bush decided, depending on whether you can understand what he says, to invade Iraq as early as November of 2001. At least he said something like that to Bob Woodward, as recorded in Woodward's new book, "Plan of Attack."

But the president decided not to tell anyone except Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who passed it along to a few select military planners. The Pentagon apparently had no invasion plans beyond 1999 war-gaming that concluded it would take 400,000 troops to conquer and then stabilize the country.

Why not tell anyone else? asked Woodward. Bush answered:

"I knew what would happen if people thought we were developing a potential war plan for Iraq. ... It would have caused enormous international angst and domestic speculation. ... It would look like I was anxious to go to war. And I'm not anxious go to war."

Angst there would have been, though the quote is most interesting not because it is about deceiving generals and the general public but because it is about Bush: What would I look like?

Imagine letting people think you are planning war just because you are -- oh, that's what preventive war means! But maybe back then we would have misunderstood both Bush and Rumsfeld even if they told us what they were really doing. My president talks like Yogi Berra, and his defense secretary sounds like Casey Stengel. In fact, baseball's two most noted language-manglers tell us a lot about what's going on these days.

Berra is a great guide to Bush-speak. Without Yogi, it is difficult to comprehend what Bush means when he says there is nothing new about the United States' (or his) embrace of Israel's planting of settlements all over the West Bank over the objections of a half-dozen other American presidents. Berra would have said it this way: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Or perhaps these quotes from Yogi might be even better applied to any aspect of our Middle East policy on the roads from Jerusalem to Fallujah:

-- "We're lost but we're making good time."

-- "You've got to be careful if you don't know where you're going because you might not get there."

-- "I really didn't say everything I said."

Rumsfeld, of course, lip-synchs Stengelese, a more complicated and convoluted language. Watching and listening to him day after day, standing up there saying there is no way to know what will happen next -- well, there really is no way of knowing.

That said, Berra and Stengel had a lot of good years, so it ain't over 'til it's over. But, for the record, Rumsfeld's generals did predict that taking Iraq and keeping it would take hundreds of thousands more men than he thought it would. And a lot of people, me among them, used history as a guide to pretty accurately -- disloyally, we were told -- predict that we would eventually lose in Iraq. The defeat, we said before the attack, would not be military but political -- as it was, forgive the "disloyal" analogy, in Vietnam. We will lose politically because they, the tortured people of Iraq, have been there forever and they will still be there when we decide to leave. It is their country, their history and their problem.

This is Stengel doing Rumsfeld-speak:

-- "There comes a time in every man's life, and I've had plenty."

-- "All right, everybody line up alphabetically according to your height."

-- "Well, I made up my mind, but I made it up both ways."

Come to think of it, that last one might have come from the man who would be Bush, John Kerry. Politics does have its own language, too.

It ain't over. And it sure won't end on June 30, when we say we will give up political power in Iraq. Actually, we've already done that, though our president and his men will not say that clearly because it would make them look like they took the wrong fork. And it won't be over in Israel and the occupied West Bank either, not as long as the president of the United States looks subordinate to the prime minister of Israel. Peace there depends on the United States using its own power to find ways to put unyielding pressure on both sides.

The Berra quote that seemed appropriate last week as Bush and Rumsfeld tried to explain what they were doing was this one: "We made too many wrong mistakes."

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves