A Cunning Plan, Or Just Insanity?

Let’s pretend for just a moment-against all previous knowledge of both speaker and subject-that Ari Fleischer’s denial on Sept. 2 of any internal rift over Iraq within the Bush administration might be accurate.

How could it possibly be that the Secretary of State, who urges the renewal of United Nations weapons inspections, and the Vice President and Secretary of Defense, who dismiss that proposal and demand military action, are working together toward the same goal?

The press secretary’s preposterous statement could be true if George W. Bush is as clever as his defenders claim he is. But that could be the case only if the President and his hawkish advisers are not quite so intent on war as they seem to be-and believe that the credible threat of invasion may finally force Saddam Hussein to accept a new, rigorous inspection regime.

Appearances, of course, strongly suggest the opposite.

The President’s two highest-ranking cabinet members, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, seem to be involved in a potentially costly game of “chicken” between themselves rather than with the dictator of Baghdad. Mr. Cheney’s allies in the media have relentlessly assaulted Mr. Powell as an “appeaser,” while Mr. Powell has stood up against their pressure (even as damaging news of his possible early resignation leaked in Time magazine.)

Lining up on either side of this rumble, as the contestants hurtle toward a disastrous crackup, are the retired generals, Bush family friends, Pentagon officials, foreign leaders and armchair assault pundits.

Until the past week, when Mr. Cheney was belatedly reined in by the President, the country was on an unmistakable trajectory toward war. The belligerent tone emanating from the White House was aimed at Congress and American friends in Europe as well as Saddam. The hawks practically spat out their message: We don’t need no stinking war resolution, and we don’t need no stinking allies.

Whether or not these macho gestures were intended to raise concern about the administration’s sanity, that purpose has been well-served. Friends and adversaries alike in Washington and in capitals around the world are openly wondering about the policy disarray and manic rhetoric over which Mr. Bush presides.

Richard Lugar, the estimable Indiana Republican who formerly chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offers concerned advice. Even Tony Blair, the only European leader with any enthusiasm for the Bush policy, suggests that there is still an opportunity to change course.

Damaging as the attitude of Mr. Bush and his team has been to America’s relationships with other countries around the world, however, the growing fear of White House madness could prove useful in dealing with Iraq. (There was once another President who told aides that he wanted America’s foreign enemies to wonder whether he had lost his mind, and might therefore do something truly dangerous. Unfortunately, Richard Nixon actually was mentally disturbed and was eventually forced to resign.)

The problem is that Mr. Bush’s associates, if not the President himself, are unlikely to be satisfied with anything less than “pre-emptive” war. Yet Mr. Bush would be wise to listen to his father’s old friends and his own general staff. Although he has done his best to paint himself into a corner, there remains an alternative that serves legitimate American interests more honorably and humanely than massive bloodshed. And ironically, that path may have been opened by the threatening posture of those who insist, sincerely or cynically, that there is no alternative to war.

In fact, political justifications for a negotiated solution exist in statements already enunciated by the White House-such as the claim that no further Congressional sanction is required by Mr. Bush as commander in chief. That opinion rests upon United Nations resolutions demanding the elimination of all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and continuing inspections to ensure compliance by Baghdad. The President’s spokesmen have recently indicated that resumed inspections might just conceivably provide an initial step toward resolving the current crisis.

So should the consultations between the United Nations secretariat and the Iraqi foreign ministry bring forth a sufficiently stringent inspection proposal, then Mr. Bush could claim credit for that result. He’d be fairly entitled to do so, moreover, because four years of stalemate would at last have yielded to the threat of war.

With that trademark sly smile, he could even hint that this less bloody outcome was exactly what he’d been seeking all along. And nobody would really be sure whether or not he was telling the truth, but that would hardly matter.

A Cunning Plan, Or Just Insanity?