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Mary McGrory

The 'Shock and Awe' News Conference

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, March 9, 2003; Page B07

The president's news conference was meant to be a demonstration -- as he stands on the brink of unleashing "shock and awe" on Iraq -- of how much he hates war. One of many unasked questions was: Does he hate war as much as he hates news conferences?

The president has a profound aversion to being called on to explain himself, and he has conveyed this not only by keeping to eight the number of news conferences he has held since taking the oath but also by using body language that conveys his resentment at the process.

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He had obviously been counseled to be calm; characteristically, he overdid it, and appeared comatose. Message: I am not a bully.

He kept saying war could still be averted, but never said how. He said he respected the opinions of dissenting nations and then declared we will not be deterred from going it alone.

The strangest thing was his way of recognizing reporters. He was going by a chart that had the names and the order in which he was to call on them. "This is scripted," he said in an aside. What he did was to meld the name of the reporter he was about to recognize into the sentence he was uttering on some great matter. Without any pause or inflection, he made the name part of his declaration. It tended to deprive what he was saying of any seriousness or significance.

Example: "The risk of doing nothing, the risk of hoping that Saddam Hussein changes his mind and becomes a gentle soul, the risk that somehow -- that inaction will make the world safer, is a risk I'm not willing to take for the American people, John King."

The president is aware that while his performance as frontier sheriff fighting terrorism still goes down well, if slightly less well, in the country, it has bombed in the world. Old Europe is miffed, and our closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada, are offended by crude hints of vengeance if they vote in the United Nations against us -- against war. We'll be friends again, he said.

He made a point of our solicitude for the Iraqi people, about our elaborate plans to avoid what up until now the military has referred to cheerfully as "collateral damage." High-tech, laser-guided bombing and sharper intelligence will seemingly avoid a repetition of the 3,000 casualties in Baghdad in the first Bush War.

All week the brass has been out emphasizing a concern for Iraqi citizens that Saddam Hussein has never shown. A briefer at the Pentagon emphasized the need to be nice if we intended to stay and mold Iraq into a democracy. Supreme commander Gen. Tommy Franks injected a note of reality. He was making no promises: War is war, he said in effect.

The Pentagon is torn between bragging about what it can do and boasting about what it won't do as we liberate Iraq. In the middle of the stream of reassurances of our mercy was a jarring reminder of our overwhelming power. The Air Force unveiled a 20,000-pound bomb, which creates its own mushroom cloud, without saying where it would be used. The pope sent over a cardinal for an eleventh-hour appeal to the Oval Office. The pope was trying to warn the president of the baleful consequences in the Arab world of invading a Muslim country.

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni made the same point before a congressional hearing. His nightmare was the prospect of seeing, on a split TV screen, Israelis killing Arabs on the West Bank and Americans killing Arabs in Iraq. He suggested it might stimulate enlistments in al Qaeda.

Bush does not like to hear about the consequences of his obsession and deals harshly with those who discuss them. The most severe punishment was meted out to Larry Lindsey, his erstwhile economic adviser, who put the bill for the war in Iraq at $200 billion. He was fired.

Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, committed the error of truth-telling and was set down hard. When asked, he estimated that it would take "several hundred thousand soldiers" to occupy Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz landed on him. "Way off the mark," he steamed. Bush said at his news conference, almost airily, that the costs of the war would be taken care of in a supplemental appropriation.

In the Bush circle, zeal is much prized. Niccolo Machiavelli's advice to courtiers is followed: "Do not question the ends of the prince -- just tell him how to best do what he wants to do."

Bush insists that war or peace is all up to Hussein. To the American people he says, remember 9/11, trust me.

As he said at his news conference, "when it comes to our security, we really don't need anybody's permission."

In other words, let the shock and awe begin.


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