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Mary McGrory

Time to Talk

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, September 15, 2002; Page B07

Consult with the United Nations? George W. Bush's speech sounded more like a pistol-whipping. Either the wimpy, no-account folks in the glass palace on the East River get with his Iraq program or else.

"Else" is having yourself consigned to irrelevance by the boss of the Free World.

_____More McGrory_____
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It is a measure of the president's success in wrenching the question about a first-time preemptive war from "why?" to "how?" that many people were relieved he even went to the United Nations.

At a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discussion of an alternative solution, Carnegie President Jessica Mathews led the launch of a plan to get rid of nuclear weapons rather than Saddam Hussein himself and expressed gratitude for Bush's mere presence on the green marble podium. "He has walked back into the fold of the U.N.," she declared bravely.

The Carnegie plan, which we can assume will get short shrift at the White House, calls for coercive, militarized inspection of Hussein's ever-expanding facilities for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He will resist, obviously. But one Carnegie panelist, retired Air Force Gen. Charles G. Boyd, predicted that under the threat of armed intervention, Hussein would give in: "It is a choice between the undesirable and the unacceptable" -- like choosing a quadruple bypass over extinction.

In Bush's well-written speech, he gave inspection short shrift.

The Powell-Cheney split inside the White House has been much chronicled. Powell, the peacenik, called inspection "the first step." The designated warmonger, Vice President Cheney, showing an appetite for armed conflict that he lacked during the Vietnam era -- he got five draft deferments -- dissed inspections as a source of "false comfort." The president's mention of inspections indicated that Cheney had prevailed: "We know that Saddam Hussein pursued weapons of mass murder even when inspectors were in his country. Are we to assume that he stopped when they left?"

But those who feared a virtual declaration of war were mollified. And the real audience for the tough talk was Congress, which Bush is trying to muscle into support for war with Iraq before the November elections. Dissenters will be asked what more they want in order to commit the country to combat in a hostile neighborhood: "He went to the United Nations, didn't he?" Resisters will be accused of "politicizing" the great regime-changing efforts of a son who is trying to complete his father's unfinished business. The elections will be transformed into a referendum on the commander in chief, which is what Bush has always sought. It will be uphill work to keep voters focused on prescription drugs, the economy and the environment when our uniformed men and women are in peril.

The president made the case against Saddam Hussein as an outlaw and a malign dictator who represents "a grave and gathering danger." But the particulars of his tyranny rather strikingly resemble those of Saudi Arabia, which is our ally in the war against terrorism.

On the morning after the first anniversary of Sept. 11, it was hard to imagine that rage at Saddam Hussein was equal to America's still-tearful fury at Osama bin Laden, who killed 3,000 innocent people and goes unpunished. Whatever Hussein is doing -- or will do -- he had nothing to do with the day that we relived around the clock.

We are still far from punishing the fiend who set in motion so much grief and glory -- a horrendous reminder of our vulnerability and at the same time an explosion of valor, decency and kindness that we cannot relive often enough.

The war on terror had immediate support. But a year later in Afghanistan the warlords are drifting back into power, while our handpicked president, Hamid Karzai, is dodging assassins and al Qaeda infests the hills.

We have a president who recoils from the idea of nation-building in Afghanistan, which needs everything, and embarks without inhibition on a course that some say will require a decade of occupation and reform in Baghdad.

Will the country decide that we should finish one war before we start another? Will we at last throw our weight into the fray between Israelis and Arabs? It's a dangerous undertaking when the all-important Jewish vote is at stake. If Congress capitulates in the dubious venture proposed by Bush over the objections of Iraq's neighbors and all Europe except Britain -- the German chancellor calls it "an adventure" -- where are ordinary citizens going to get the encouragement to just say no?

Bush raised the stakes at the United Nations. We had thought only Iraq's survival was the issue. Now that the United Nations is threatened with irrelevance, it has to show some resolve rather than just passing resolutions and prove to George Bush that it is never too late to talk instead of fight.


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