Diplomatic Diary: A Dialogue Of The Deaf

It's not their fault, said the senior administration official. Going to war is a tough decision, he explained. Many countries need a little help before doing life's difficult things.

That was the Bush administration's analysis of the world's nervousness about going to war in Iraq. And what's interesting is not just the sense of parental concern that lies behind it ("One day they'll grow up and see just how dangerous the world is.") It's the driving sense of leadership--a duty to lead--that represents this president's conviction politics.

For the Bush White House, it's an endless loop of self-justification: The more our allies are nervous, the greater the need for our leadership. And for those weak-willed Europeans, it's another endless loop of denial: The more America tells us what to do, the more nervous we get. It's a dialogue of the deaf--both sides are speaking to themselves, not to one another.

"There are different views about the point where everybody should say: Time has run out, Saddam Hussein has had his chance, he is not disarming, and regrettably we now have to consider more robust options," explained the senior official, trying to be sympathetic to the French, Germans and Arab nations. "That is a difficult decision for people to make. Nobody wants this thing to go to war, least of all the president of the United States. And it's not surprising that there is some difference of views and some reluctance to make the hard decision on that.

"It fell to the president on September 12th [his speech to the U.N. general assembly last year] and it falls to the president again to say: I know it's hard, I know it's tough, but we have to face up to these decisions. That is what he is doing when he says: You have to face up to the fact that he [Saddam Hussein] is not disarming."

More robust options. Hard decisions. Facing up to the facts. Why can't the Bush administration just say it straight? Are they just being coy? Or do they have a secret plan to avoid war?

There are only three alternatives to war. One is that the U.S. backs down. Another is that Saddam jumps (or gets pushed) from power. A third is that the two sides square off for years while the United Nations wedges itself in between, with more inspectors, resolutions and debates.

Let's just take the first option off the table. What are the chances of President Bush backing down from his tough talk on Iraq and calling U.S. forces back home? For a president who prides himself on speaking to the boys from Lubbock, it is hard to imagine him folding right now without some kind of success. Remember the state of the union address a year ago: "I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer," Bush warned. "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

When it comes to backing down, Bush is boxed in. Either he was bluffing then, or he's bluffing now. Neither is an attractive scenario.

Alternative number two: Saddam jumps (or gets pushed) from power.

There was much talk recently of Saddam going into self-imposed exile, perhaps in Libya. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld both floated that idea on television earlier this month, saying Saddam could leave with his close family, in what officials said was a coordinated message. "I think that would be a fair trade to avoid war," Rumsfeld told CBS' Face The Nation.

But some form of coup, it turns out, is not in fact part of the Bush game-plan. While desirable, the prospect of Saddam leaving power peacefully is being filed under D for Dream. "I don't think anybody is hoping for a coup, and you certainly don't plan for a coup," says a senior U.S. official. "What the president has been trying to do is increase the pressure on the regime so it will decided that its only alternative to war is compliance. That has been our strategy. And part of that strategy is if it doesn't work, and he doesn't get the message, then obviously you position your forces so as to use them, if necessary.

"The problem is that this is a man who has a history of miscalculations. He is obviously clinging to power and that has been his priority. What we were calling for was a change of heart, a strategic decision based on the calculation that this was his only alternative to the destruction of his own regime. What we don't have is a strategic decision to disarm."

So we're left with alternative number three: the U.N. inspections game. Here the Bush administration is perhaps clearest. No to endless inspections, no to even extended inspections. And probably no to another U.N. resolution, unless that resolution comes at little or no cost to the administration's policies.

In fact, administration officials are so opposed to the idea of extended inspections, that they claim the French and German positions will increase--not decrease--the chances of war. When there was solidarity between Europe and the U.S., there was more pressure on Saddam to disarm. Now, says one senior official, Saddam Hussein might think "there may be an opening" for avoiding conflict. "It runs the risk of reducing the pressure on Iraq and therefore runs the risk of reducing the possibility of a peaceful settlement. That is unfortunate," the official says.

So there's no secret plan to avoid war. The administration is just playing coy, using other words for war because the W-word sounds too, well, warlike. That may confuse some folks, who want to believe there's a way to avoid war. But for the Bush White House, history is speaking loud and clear.

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