West Wing Story: Decoding Bush's Agenda

Are the United Nations inspectors in Iraq just an international game of rope-a-dope? It certainly seems that President Bush intends to go to war no matter what Hans Blix and his sleuths find--or, more to the point, don't find. "This isn't about inspectors," Bush said again Wednesday. No, it's about Saddam Hussein and convincing the world that he's a liar.

There is nothing Bush hates more than a prevaricator--though he doesn't use that word. The first time he met Tom Daschle, Bush told the Democratic senator: "I hope you'll never lie to me." It struck Daschle as a bit jarring, a bit naive even. But Bush holds everyone, even despots, to that standard. Nor does he forgive easily. He never liked Yasir Arafat, and when the Palestinian leader denied, in a letter to Bush, that an Iranian arms cache found aboard a ship was intended for Palestinian fighters--despite intelligence reports to the contrary--Bush wrote Arafat off.

Bush doesn't need a letter from Saddam. He already believes that the "declaration" Iraq's government will deliver to the U.N. on Saturday will be thousands of pages of lies. The administration's job, as it sees it, is to prove that to the world. Just what evidence the United States will counter with once they've translated the morass is unclear. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer won't tell, but the mindset is clear: "The last time the Iraqis said they had no weapons of mass destruction, they turned out to be liars," he told journalists Wednesday.

It's been hard to pin Bush down on whether Saddam could stay as long as his weapons of mass destruction go. Initially, Bush talked about "regime change." By that he meant Saddam had to leave office. Then, as the administration began its campaign to woo allies, the new buzzword was "disarmament." When asked to reconcile the two goals, officials muddled things further by saying that if disarmament occurred then "the regime will have changed," as coalition-friendly Colin Powell put it. Our kinder, gentler allies can read what they want to into these nuances, but what the president has always believed is that there can be no honest disarmament unless Saddam is ousted.

For months the guessing game in Washington has been not if, but when we would go to war. We reporters--a few trying to plan our vacations--have been scrutinizing the president's calendar more than usual. Bush is supposed to go to Africa in early to mid-January. He won't start a war while he's out of the country, we reason. Others have consulted the lunar calendar: stealth planes prefer the cover of darkness and Marine landings need high tides. And everyone has become a meteorologist. March in Iraq is not only blisteringly hot, it's sandstorm season, we tell each other authoritatively. So we must be going to war in February, we all concur--and make our skiing plans.

But this week the rumors are flying that reporters could be spending New Year's in sand rather than snow. What about our scientific study? The only thing that's clear is that the administration is proceeding rapidly with its war plans regardless of what Blix et al are doing. Gen. Tommy Franks, who will be running the war, leaves Thursday for 10 days in Qatar. (And yes, it is pronounced "gutter.") Bush trusts Franks, who is from Midland, Texas, and went to high school with Laura Bush.

Franks is packing a mini CENTCOM (Central Command)--his Tampa headquarters--for a dry run of what will be his CDHQ (CENTCOM Deployable Headquarters) in the AOR (Area of Responsibility). The military likes acronyms even more than the White House does. The general's team will be running computer-assisted tests of their readiness including of a vast communications network among military outposts. Exercise Internal Look, as it's being called, is supposed to end Dec. 16. But a senior CENTCOM official said Wednesday that some staff might just stay on.

Even as the wheels of war start rolling, the bureaucratic wheels are not as well greased. If the United States has the evidence to call what they see as Saddam's bluff, Bush has still committed to bringing it to the Security Council before going to war. After building up international goodwill, it's unlikely he'll squander it casually. Meanwhile, Turkey has made its vital cooperation contingent on U.N. support. The Saudis and the Brits are also pushing Bush to continue the multilateral effort. Bush would rather go with a coalition than go alone. But that Saddam must go is in little doubt. I'm less sure about my skiing trip.