All politicians develop a habit of listening most closely to their least critical friends: employees, consultants and writers who tell them what they wish to hear about themselves and their policies. Advice from such flatterers is usually no better than that offered by the insistent fanatics who perennially lurk at the seat of power. There is an abundance of both types in and around George W. Bush’s White House as the President struggles with the problem of Iraq. Quite often, the flatterer and the fanatic co-exist within the same individual.
If Mr. Bush is paying attention to Andrew Sullivan, Fred Barnes and other such outspoken admirers, he may believe by now that he combines in his person the qualities of Churchill, Machiavelli and John Wayne. He could think that he has outsmarted a reluctant world community, and that his administration’s “strategy” for mounting a war in Iraq will soon prevail in the United Nations-regardless of Saddam Hussein’s sudden capitulation on weapons inspections.
In his latest drum-beating editorial for The Weekly Standard , Mr. Barnes assures the President that he has decisively won the worldwide debate over violent “regime change” in Iraq. Forget about the various polls that indicate public doubt over any unilateral American military action and public support for multilateral institutions. Forget about the extraordinary unanimity of world public opinion on these topics. And don’t worry about the widening rifts between the U.S. and its traditional allies.
No, the true measure of Mr. Bush’s public-relations success, according to Mr. Barnes, is a recent story aired on National Public Radio, about a focus group of students at Penn State–Harrisburg who said they support the President. Only someone with the lowest regard for Mr. Bush’s intelligence (not to mention the intelligence of his readers) could expect such reassurances to be taken seriously.
The Barnes editorial praised the administration for taking a “smart gamble at the U.N.” The assumption behind its wager, according to Mr. Barnes’ excellent White House sources, was essentially that “Saddam will say no.” Mr. Barnes also quotes an administration official who told him that the Iraqi dictator “has an unwillingness to accept weapons inspectors.” If Saddam were amenable to inspections, he would have “gutted the president’s speech” by welcoming inspectors to Iraq the day before Mr. Bush’s U.N. appearance. Mr. Barnes concludes that this has been the President’s “finest hour.”
Similar copious gush is to be found in the writings of Mr. Sullivan, who told his Web-log readers the other day that “Bush’s summer strategy has been really, really smart.” The enemies of civilization in the blogger’s gunsights include the editors of The New York Times (who fired him); indeed, the implacable President is gradually forcing such sniveling baby-boomers “to choose between supporting Saddam and supporting Bush.” This was about to happen imminently, predicted Mr. Sullivan on Friday the 13th, just as soon as “Saddam refuses to allow real and meaningful inspections. ”
All of that happy horse-product was published, of course, before the Iraqi foreign ministry gave Secretary General Kofi Annan a letter on Monday announcing the government’s “unconditional” acceptance of a new inspection regime. The U.N. chief was clearly relieved by this development, although he surely knows that the inspections must be more rigorous, and the inspectors better protected, than their predecessors, who were thrown out four years ago for “spying.” Intelligence-gathering is exactly what weapons inspectors are supposed to do, and they had better be able to do it properly this time, or war will eventually become unavoidable.
In the meantime, however, Saddam has forestalled any likelihood of united action against his dictatorship by the Security Council. (The permanent members ought to know that Mr. Sullivan says he will insist on “unconditional, unfettered, military-backed inspectors with no time limit on their withdrawal” and Iraq’s strict obedience to “every single U.N. resolution.” They should consider themselves duly warned.) That is the reality Mr. Bush and his divided cabinet will face as they cope with the Iraqi announcement.
With all due respect to the Napoleonic neocons, the President was forced against his inclination to go to the U.N. There he discovered that multilateralism works. The Saudis said they would help enforce the will of the Security Council, the French became more helpful, and the Russians seemed willing to make a deal. And Saddam realized that he would have to abandon his bellicose intransigence, at least for the time being.
Two weeks ago, the seemingly remote possibility that what has just happened could in fact happen was mentioned in this space and elsewhere. The President can still take advantage of the situation described in that column: Work with our allies to maintain military and diplomatic pressure on Iraq, and claim the credit when effective inspections begin.