George W. Bush likes big belt buckles: shiny silver ones. Back in Texas, he sported one from the Texas Rangers--not the baseball team he'd helped run, but the elite police of the Lone Star State. More recently, in a Vanity Fair cover portrait with his terror-fighting posse, there was Bush, suit coat open, showing off his newest silver buckle, one bearing the presidential seal.
It's a West Texas thing--and a symbol of his approach to diplomacy, politics and the war on terrorism. He's the Texas Ranger of the world, and wants everyone to know it. He's the guy with the silver badge, issuing warnings to the cattle rustlers. He will cut deals when necessary--his history shows that--but, as a matter of inclination and strategy, he's the toughest talker on his team. So far, in the aftermath of September 11, that stance has served him, and the country, well. The question is whether it will in the future.
In most White Houses, the president tends to operate in the rhetorical shadows, leaving hard lines to be laid down by designated bad cops whose ideas can be played down when necessary. The general rule is Teddy Roosevelt's: "Walk softly and carry a big stick." This president carries a big stick, but thunders across the landscape with it. His model is Ronald Reagan, who was seen as simple-minded by his critics but whose talk of an "evil empire" and joking, mike-check threats ("The bombing begins in five minutes ... ") unnerved the generals of the Soviet Union and helped push them into what turned out to be a terminal funk.
BUSH I VS. BUSH II
Bush's father, whose elementary school was Greenwich Country Day, was the bravest of the brave in World War II--at one point he was the youngest Navy pilot in the war. But he was not a belt-buckle kind of guy. He didn't like to make a public fuss, if one could be avoided. He didn't believe in pre-emptory threats. Well-mannered and polite, he always had faith that things could be worked out. His ambassador to Iraq was making nice in Baghdad until practically the moment Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then, but only then, Bush I struck, carefully assembling the biggest invasion force since World War II, and an airtight global alliance to support it.
Bush II, whose early years were spent in Midland, Texas, at Sam Houston Elementary and San Jacinto Junior High, is wired differently. He likes to call people names. That's practically the first thing you do: Call someone out. You name something for what it is: evil. His speech of last Sept. 20, contained the toughest talk imaginable--we would do nothing less than banish terrorism from the world--and the American people loved what they heard. They still do.
But now, some of Washington, much of Europe and all of the Middle East are upset with Bush's threatening talk about an "axis of evil" comprising Iraq, Iran and North Korea. They shouldn't have been surprised. For one, the president's original speech promised to fight not only the terrorists themselves, but any nation that supports or harbors them. Bush was merely calling out some names.
Bush and his team are fully aware of the strategic uses of his Texas Ranger image. They want to give hope--and money--to Iraqi foes of Saddam's regime. They want to goad him into doing something rash--which would give the administration an excuse to attack. They want to insist on the American right to seize the moral high ground against him. They want Saddam to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors, which he summarily threw out of the country during the Clinton administration. And they are in essence telling the Europeans: Don't make us do this on our own. If you are worried about our Cowboy in Chief, then tell Saddam to let the U.N. back into Iraq--and look for a plausible way to carry out what Secretary of State Colin Powell has come to call a "regime change" in that rogue state.
The next stage in the Walking Tall strategy is to send Dick Cheney to the region, where he will take anti-Saddam soundings and issue soberly worded versions of "don't make him (Bush) do it."
WOOFIN' AND DEALIN'
Woofin' is often the prelude to deal. There was never a deal to be cut with the Taliban or Al Qaeda. But, despite Powell's call for a "regime change," I can see the administration accepting the half-measure of renewed U.N. inspections in the meantime. That, at least, has been the pattern in Bush's legislative dealings, both in Austin and in Washington. When he was governor of Texas, he championed a mammoth $3 billion tax cut--and declared victory when he got $1 billion. In 2000, he ran on a platform that included school vouchers, but cut a deal with Ted Kennedy on an education bill that excluded them. Just the other week, Bush settled for half a loaf on another matter close to his heart, federal support for religious groups that provide welfare services. He talked big and took the deal.
On the other hand, he said he was going to abandon the Antiballistic-Missile Treaty--and followed through despite the howls of Europe. He was able to do so because he'd convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin not to go ballistic about it--that there was more to be gained from a deeper relationship with the United States than a public fight over the ABM Treaty.
A KINDRED SPIRIT
But there was something about Putin that Bush recognized from the school playgrounds of West Texas: a guy from a proud, gigantic and rather untamed country, a guy with a touch of swagger, a gift for blunt gamesmanship and a belief in the business of doing business. Putin has warned Bush against unilateral military action in Iraq, which owes Russia $10 billion. But that leaves Bush plenty of room to maneuver.
At their summit last summer, Bush gave Putin a cowboy hat. I'm assuming a silver belt buckle is next.