Stop The Babel Over Babylon

President George W. Bush's speech to the United Nations could not come at a better time. He needs to sell his policy on Iraq to the world. But first it needs to be clear what that policy is. I, for one, am pretty confused. On Nov. 26, 2001, Bush declared that "Saddam Hussein has agreed to allow inspectors in his country... he ought to let the inspectors back in." He reiterated this policy in an interview with NEWSWEEK a few weeks later. But recently, in a major speech, Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed the idea of allowing inspectors in, saying that their return "would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow back in the box." He did not explain what had changed since last November to trigger this shift in policy.

Maybe it isn't a shift in policy. The next day the White House distanced itself from Cheney's speech, though he soon made another one that was only mildly different. Then Colin Powell explained in an interview with the BBC that the president's policy was that inspectors must return. Meanwhile Donald Rumsfeld has been saying for months now that inspections would be utterly pointless. Is it all clear now?

Cheney is an able, serious man. He knows that you never rule out options in advance. Why deprive yourself of the tool of inspections, even if only to use as a ploy? You can always use military force if and when inspections fail--and if Cheney and Rumsfeld are right, they will fail.

The reason for this seeming irrationality is that the real target of Cheney's and Rumsfeld's efforts is not Saddam Hussein but Colin Powell. Their strategy is a bureaucratic one, designed to box in a colleague rather than Iraq's dictator. Parlor politics have trumped power politics in the Bush administration.

Some supporters of the administration argue that this president's style is much like that of Franklin D. Roosevelt: allow his advisers to disagree, then pick a position and move on. But this is entirely at odds with everything the White House has told us about Bush's disciplined management style. (The guy who had FDR's disorganized style was... Bill Clinton.) And I cannot recall a single example of Roosevelt's advisers publicly disagreeing with a policy that the president had repeatedly affirmed. This whole business smells less like flexibility and more like chaos.

The confusion is costly. As in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, postwar security in Afghanistan and now Iraq, the administration's divisions have been exploited by the outside world. While American officials bickered, and the president maintained his silence, foreign governments stepped into the breach and voiced their strong opposition to any action in Iraq. The momentum, which since 9-11 was with America, has reversed course.

When he was appointed secretary of State in January 1981, Alexander Haig said at his press conference that he was to be "the vicar of American foreign policy." By that, Haig explained, he meant that he would have the "general managership" and articulation of policy. That comment is now remembered in jest, because Haig played no such role. But he was right on the principle, and it was only after Ronald Reagan got a secretary of State who had that stature, George Shultz, that American foreign policy gained consistency and strength. Right now, American foreign policy has too many priests. President Bush needs a vicar.

If America gets such a person, his--or her--first task should be to explain our policies to the world. America's allies in Europe, where I spent last week, are confused. They also feel utterly ignored.

The complaint I heard most often from conservative Europeans, who have spent decades supporting U.S. policies, was "This administration can't be bothered to explain its policies to us and help us persuade our governments to support it." Europe's anti-American left, on the other hand, is delighted. Washington has become easy to caricature.

A year ago people around the world were holding candlelight vigils for the United States. Today the easiest way to get people cheering on the streets is to denounce U.S. policies. And often it is not America's policies but its highhandedness that upsets people. How else to explain that George Bush, who increased American foreign aid by 50 percent, is the villain of the Johannesburg summit? Or that, despite being the first president to call for a Palestinian state, he is seen as indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians?

The White House has just set up an Office of Global Communications to better sell America to the world. But it is not America that needs articulation; it is this administration. Let Disneyland explain itself. Could we hear more about Iraq?

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