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Bush in a Box (Scripps Howard News Service) January 25, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

For someone who likes moral clarity, President Bush cannot be happy about his options with Iraq. A series of actions by allies and the enemy — and one surprising step of his own — has left the president boxed in on every side. But like the jack-in-the-box toy, Bush is not easily contained and may decide to kick his way out.

Four very tall walls — political, diplomatic, legal and moral — have closed in on the president and his advisors as the Iraqi matter comes to a head.

Politically the president appears to be in a no-win situation. A strong majority of the American people does not favor military action against Iraq unless the United Nations or a large coalition of allies signs on. Neither of those seems likely anytime soon. On the other hand, having amassed thousands of troops and dozens of ships in the Gulf region, backing down now would be a major embarrassment. Scaling that wall, by persuading the American people that war is appropriate, will be a long and difficult climb.

Diplomatically the president has steadily lost ground since his surprising decision to turn things over to the U.N. Security Council. A couple of months ago, the United States had convinced many at home and abroad that there was evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Based on those claims, President Bush appeared to be ready to lead a coalition of the willing into military action to disarm Saddam.

But then, at the last minute, the president reversed field and went to the United Nations instead. While that might have been a popular decision, it also meant that the president had lost control of the Iraqi matter, and especially the timing. International weapons inspections and deliberations are painfully slow processes, and they invite precisely the sort of games Saddam plays so well.

Starting with France and Germany, members of the Security Council say they are not persuaded of the need for military action at this time. There are only two ways to scale this very tall diplomatic wall: Convince the Security Council or ignore them. The former will take months — if it can be done at all — and the latter was more readily achieved before we empowered the Security Council to oversee the process.

Legally and morally, the case for war becomes steadily more difficult. Even hawks are hard-pressed to argue that we should go to war over the discovery of a dozen or more unarmed warheads. Notice the change in rhetoric. No longer are the president’s defenders talking about finding weapons of mass destruction, but about Saddam’s “breaches” of agreements. But in the law, you need not only a breach but also resulting damages. What has been discovered so far is a series of frustrating and improper breaches by Saddam, but I would hate to argue in a court of law that these resulted in the sort of consequential damage that justified a war.

How did the president end up in this box? One problem is that Bush has been following the advice of both his secretary of defense and his secretary of state, which have led in different directions. He has approved Donald Rumsfeld’s military buildup, while also following Colin Powell’s diplomatic advice, and the two tracks have not come together. The military is nearly ready, but the diplomatic timetable is way behind.

In another sense, Bush boxed himself in by turning things over to the Security Council. Everyone assumed that in making that decision, the U.S. had strong evidence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but that seems increasingly unlikely. Perhaps Bush’s advisors felt Saddam would refuse to cooperate with the U.N. weapons inspectors, bringing things to a head immediately.

Now the United States has its armed forces all dressed up with no place to go, leaving the president in a further quandary. We are playing the “bad cop,” ready to use force against Saddam at a moment’s notice. Perhaps only a “good cop,” European allies or Arab neighbors, can broker a deal that will prompt Saddam to leave Iraq and permit President Bush to declare victory.

In the end, this is not a president who likes to be boxed in. Faced with a choice between leaving the military on hold for months while arms inspections and diplomatic solutions play out, or using unpopular military force, Bush may well select the latter. If he does, it will be the most unpopular war since Vietnam, and he can only hope it will end quickly.

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