It's become almost certain that, like it or not, war is the answer. So now is the time to start praying that the Bushies wage war better than they forge arguments and allegiances for war.
The administration, with varying degrees of internal consensus, has test driven numerous justifications for war. None seem to have convinced American public opinion, world public opinion, or a plurality of our major allies.
The first cycle of war advocacy came in the year after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The administration was divided, the president was largely silent, and various Bush Hawks like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made the public case for war.
Then on Sept. 12, 2002, a day after the first anniversary of the attacks, President Bush finally put his cards on the table in a major speech to the United Nations. The split between Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Bush Hawks became more public. Powell essentially won the argument about whether to seek United Nations and international support for the mission and he delivered a crucial U.N. resolution on Nov. 8.
The November elections also brought the administration unexpected success. That mission accomplished, many thought the drums of war would go quiet. They didn't.
The administration then tried on various justifications for military action.
Saddam has nukes, they said. Or is about to get them.
The people of Iraq deserve to be liberated from the dictator Saddam.
Saddam has biological and chemical weapons.
Saddam supports terrorism.
Saddam has hooked up with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
The cases made for each point were actually quite compelling. In fact, polls showed most Americans essentially thought all these things were true, and had for quite awhile.
Public opinion was far less convinced, though, that this added up to a compelling need to launch a war right now. What was different between the winter of 2001 and the winter 2003 that mandated war immediately?
The latest case for war came in the president's speech Wednesday night, right before CBS News broadcast Dan Rather's interview with Saddam Hussein - coincidentally.
War and the vanquishing of Saddam, the president said, would lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians and a tidal wave of democracy washing through the Arab world.
"A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions," said Mr. Bush. "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."
This from the presidential candidate who in 2000 made the phrase "nation-building" sound like pedophilia?
Conquering Iraq would also, for your information, cure acne, eliminate world hunger and eradicate reality TV shows.
The president's extravagant claims for the peace between Israel and the Palestinians are borderline irresponsible. But could a truly democratic Iraq inspire reform in other Arab nations? Possible. Not probable. In any event, it will take years or decades and is a wholly uncertain project.
Bush hawks often call their opponents appeasers, comparing them to Neville Chamberlain and others who were blind to the Nazi menace.
Winston Churchill, however, didn't respond by conjuring up new reasons to fight Hitler every few months. His message was black and white and read all over, and it never wavered.
Bush the Elder, by contrast, waged a brilliant pre-war. He assembled a remarkable international alliance of countries willing to send treasure and troops to the war effort.
But in hindsight, of course, the war itself was not waged well -- Saddam survived to fight another day.
Our greatest military asset in 1991 was that international coalition, supported by international public opinion. No matter what happens with future U.N. resolutions, that ammunition won't be available in the coming war. Either the case for war is not as strong as it was in 1991, or the case has been made poorly.
I remain completely torn. The case is very close. I find those who are certain in their convictions either emotional or incredible.
But if it's going to happen, I hope the administration is better at making war than talking about it.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer