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Mary McGrory

Hesitant Hawks

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, May 30, 2002; Page A25

Demonstrations were the common thread of the president's week in Europe. There were the protesters in the streets of Berlin and Paris, even a nervous smattering in Moscow. Then NBC's David Gregory in Paris demonstrated a facility in French -- he put a question about demonstrations to President Jacques Chirac en français and touched off a demonstration of bad temper from the leader of the Western world, who later accused Gregory of showing off "as soon as you get in front of a camera," forgetting completely that this is what TV reporters are paid to do.

The Bush blowup could be attributed to fatigue rather than to the poster-bearers who protested what we are doing in the Middle East and on global warming, and what we might do, such as invade Iraq. But these dissenters were kept well out of his sight, and besides, in the Bush inner circle -- which is to say handler Karl Rove -- European demonstrations are not to be taken seriously. The sight of decadent, elitist, stuck-up continental ingrates stirs anger in the heartland, where Rove thinks elections are won. The marchers might as well be working for the Republican National Committee: Their raised fists and furious faces provide a contrast to the Texan who always speaks his mind, saying what he feels if not always precisely what he means.

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No, something else was eating George Bush when he chewed out David Gregory.

And it was probably a demonstration at, of all places, the Pentagon. It was a demonstration of cold feet on the part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who leaked to Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas E. Ricks that they, just like the rabble in the streets of Europe, thought that invading Iraq was a chancy affair that would involve a large commitment of troops and casualties. And victory would bring only the unappetizing prospect of occupying Baghdad for an extended period.

Bush must have been steamed, as they say. Why was the rhetoric of beads and sandals emanating from the brass? Had the chiefs become flower children grown old? For the public, perhaps, it was only the appropriate commemoration of Memorial Day. India and Pakistan were shouting threats at each other across a nuclear divide. Suicide bombers were exploding in Israel. The chiefs at least provided a timely reminder of the inescapable fact that when you send young men and women to war, they get killed -- the message on the Vietnam Wall.

The chiefs certainly knew that the commander in chief of the world crusade against terrorism was adamant about the need for a regime change in Iraq. They heard his State of the Union speech on Jan. 29. They were sitting in the front row when he said to the faint-hearts of the world: "Some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will."

But in Germany, the unilateralist was talking more softly and had checked his big stick at the door. Bush said he had "no war plans on my desk." He spoke of "unified diplomatic pressure" and of shared intelligence. In Paris on Sunday, he promised to consult with Chirac.

Retired rear admiral Gene Carroll was pleased but not surprised by the bombshell from the Pentagon. Despite the drumbeat from the right, he says uniformed men like to plan precisely for situations where men will be fighting. "Amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics," he says. It was evident that "we wouldn't have the allies, supplies and bases that were available to us in the Gulf War."

The Carnegie Endowment's anti-proliferation expert, Joseph Cirincione, hails the chiefs' leak as bringing a sense of sanity to a ludicrous situation by reminding us that "it is complicated and expensive." He thinks a basic problem is that "the president is surrounded by yes men who try to encourage the Gary Cooper image, which is terrible for military policy."

Lawrence J. Korb, an old Pentagonian who now works at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the chiefs have "burst the bubble of inevitability [around Iraq] -- it was all not if but when." He predicts that the"war fever in Washington will go down now."

Consternation is high, of course, in the ranks of the civilian boosters of war with Saddam Hussein. The leaders are career hawks who loved the Vietnam War but declined to fight in it. For instance, Richard Perle thinks that The Post's Ricks got the story wrong -- he wishes, clearly -- and has decided it's not true. William Kristol, editor of the literate right-wing Weekly Standard, co-wrote a lead editorial asking if Bush had "gone wobbly."

He still thinks Bush could "set it right," but he thinks the "odds that an invasion will happen have gone to 50-50," which he considers "too close for comfort."

Europe may not have broadened Bush's perspective or changed his mind, but the Pentagon surely did.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company