Are the Bushies just bumblers when it comes to diplomacy?

Have they completely, utterly and totally screwed up in trying to win world support for invading Iraq?

That's the impression you get from the pundits these days -- including the commentators who are (or were) strongly backing a war.

The sound of second thoughts is in the air.

Maybe some of this is the normal nervousness that comes on the verge of a risky, world-changing event, like flouting the United Nations and dropping thousands of bombs on Baghdad. Maybe some stems from an effort to create some journalistic wiggle room in case things go badly ("As I cautioned before the war began .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. ").

But it may also reflect the downright ambivalence that many Americans feel about declaring war on a scoundrel who has not directly threatened this country in the past dozen years, whatever his potential to develop nuclear weapons or aid terrorists. And the sense of unease that many Americans feel about our growing isolation from those we used to think of as our allies.

In short, this is an enormously complicated subject on which the president's black-and-white declarations have done little to calm the anxiety. This is especially true when the question is framed not as a short war but a long occupation involving as many as 60,000 U.S. troops in hostile territory.

No wonder there's a striking absence of gung-ho spirit as the clock ticks off what appear to be the final minutes in the run up to war.

Tea-leaf readers seized on the latest comments of Thomas Friedman, the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/09/opinion/09FRIE.html) columnist who has largely backed Bush on Iraq. He says this is not a war of necessity: "But for a war of choice in Iraq, we need the world's permission -- because of what it would take to rebuild Iraq. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Regime change in Iraq is the right choice for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the world. Mr. Bush is right about that. But for now, this choice may be just too hard to sell. If the president can't make his war of choice the world's war of choice right now, we need to reconsider our options and our tactics. Because if Mr. Bush acts unilaterally, I fear America will not only lose the chance of building a decent Iraq, but something more important -- America's efficacy as the strategic and moral leader of the free world."

Friedman again, this morning: "My main criticism of President Bush is that he has failed to acknowledge how unusual this war of choice is -- for both Americans and the world -- and therefore hasn't offered the bold policies that have to go with it. Instead, the president has hyped the threat and asserted that this is a war of no choice."

Three different Washington Post columnists expressed misgivings on a single day.

Richard Cohen: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8032-2003Mar10.html)

"I grant you that in the run-up to this war, the Bush administration has slipped, stumbled and fallen on its face. It has advanced untenable, unproven arguments. It has oscillated from disarmament to regime change to bringing democracy to the Arab world. It has linked Hussein with al Qaeda when no such link has been established. It has warned of an imminent Iraqi nuclear program when, it seems, that's not the case. And it has managed, in a tour de force of inept diplomacy, to alienate much of the world, including some of our traditional allies."

David Broder: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8031-2003Mar10.html)

"The lesson we learned about Bush is the power -- and the danger -- that derives from his capacity to take even the most weighty presidential decisions and refine them to the simplest terms.

"It appears that the president chose to hold a news conference, a rarity in his tenure, in order to show the American people and the world the logic that has led him to the brink of war. Whatever he was asked, Bush reiterated the almost formulaic set of propositions that leave him convinced, as he put it, that if Saddam Hussein 'should be disarmed, and he's not going to disarm, there's only one way to disarm him' -- war."

E.J. Dionne: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8033-2003Mar10.html)

"He intended to make war on Saddam Hussein under almost all circumstances short of Hussein's removal or abdication. That, I think, is why public opinion abroad has lined up against Bush -- even in countries whose governments support his policy -- and why a majority of Americans still harbor deep doubts about the adventure on which we're about to embark. The worried American majority includes outright opponents of war but also many who accept Bush's immediate goals. The second group is apprehensive about his long-term objectives and the unintended consequences of pursuing them."

Josh Marshall (http://talkingpointsmemo.com/) keeps putting up long posts on his Talking Points site, convincing some readers that he's backed away from supporting an invasion:

"Over the last day I've received a number of emails saying 'thanks' or 'finally' or 'you finally wised up' for changing my position on the war. The passage those folks were referring to was the last in the previous post in which I said:

"'The pros and cons of handling Iraq have never been separable from how you do it, the costs you rack up in the doing of it, calculated against the gains you'll get in having accomplished it. At this point, we truly have the worst case scenario on the international stage. And I think that those costs now outweigh the gains.'

"The last line is the one that generated the emails. Now, I'm afraid I may disappoint those who think I've suddenly changed my stripes on this issue. I looked back at what I wrote in my long Washington Monthly article on the subject and I agree with pretty much all of it. I don't think I've really changed my position."

No such reticence from Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times: (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-scheer11mar11,1,4272819.column?coll=la%2Dnews%2Dcomment%2Dopinions)

"The maiming or killing of a single Iraqi civilian by the United States would constitute a war crime, as well as a profound violation of the Christian notion of just war. That is because the recent report of the U.N. war inspectors has made indelibly clear that disarmament is working and that Iraq at this time poses no direct threat to the well-being of the American people."

Bush seems headed toward a losing effort on the East River in New York, says USA Today: (http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-03-11-iraq-vote-usat_x.htm)

"The White House said yesterday that it would insist on a final vote on Iraqi disarmament this week in the United Nations Security Council, but it made no visible progress toward finding a compromise that could bring together the badly split body.

"President Bush rejected an informal suggestion by six undecided nations on the council to push back to mid-April the deadline for Iraq to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction. Even so, the United States and Britain said they were open to a lesser delay if it could provide international sanction for the use of force."

Is Tony Blair overplaying his hand? Perhaps, says the New York Times: (http://nytimes.com/2003/03/12/international/europe/12BLAI.html)

"For weeks and months, a seemingly unruffled Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has weathered a gathering storm of discontent among members of his Labor Party who are incensed -- or at least unsettled -- by his lock-step alliance with President Bush.

"But recently, as Mr. Blair has acknowledged that he might join a war in Iraq without a new authorization from the United Nations, that unease has crystallized into something more ominous.

"Now, in by far the worst crisis for Mr. Blair since he took office in 1997, the dissent has given rise to a startlingly open debate about his political future."

One cabinet minister has threatened to quit if Blair goes to war without U.N. approval -- and he's responded with stiff-upper-lip silence.

No such angst on Capitol Hill, the Boston Globe (http://boston.com/dailyglobe2/071/nation/In_a_tight_House_schedule_war_rarely_takes_the_floor+.shtml) reports:

"House members straggle in Tuesday afternoons, sometimes Wednesday evenings. By midafternoon on Thursdays, the House of Representatives typically wraps up its legislative work for the week.

The nation is poised for war, and the economy is flailing. But the House, under the disciplined rule of new Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, has allocated little time to discuss the biggest issues of the day facing the country."

But wait! The House is taking action after all!

"The House of Representatives has turned up its nose and said 'non' to french fries," says the Washington Times. (http://washingtontimes.com/national/20030312-202800.htm)

"Joining the growing protest against French products, House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, changed the House cafeteria menu yesterday to 'freedom fries.' He also declared 'french toast' anathema, too. The toothsome breakfast treat will henceforth be patriotic 'freedom toast.'"

That will teach those French-fried ingrates!

Slate's (http://slate.msn.com/id/2079977/) Fred Kaplan, unlike most commentators, says the latest attempt at diplomatic delay could well pass:

"War is certain: The president all but says so, as does the commentariat. Slate's 'Saddameter' puts the odds at 99 percent. It's all the more intriguing, then, that a flurry of last-minute negotiations has overtaken the U.N. Security Council in recent days.

"The effect of this could a) delay the onset of war significantly; b) lend the war greater legitimacy if it happens; or--less likely but not utterly out of the question--c) disarm Iraq, gradually, slowly, but verifiably, through means other than war. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The British and Americans are currently protesting that 45 days is too long, but Blair will probably sign on to this proposal, or co-opt it, if it stands a good chance of winning a majority of votes on the council and his own compromise doesn't. In that case, President Bush will probably have to endorse it, too: better to wait a while longer than to see his most solid ally face a vote of no-confidence and possibly be replaced by a new prime minister who has a clear mandate to view American policy more skeptically, to say the least. (The fact that Bush has gone back to the United Nations for a second resolution at all is entirely due to his special relationship with Blair.)"

To stay or not to stay? For journalists in Baghdad, that is the journalistic question, says the Chicago Tribune: (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0303120205mar12,1,996723.story?coll=chi%2Dnewsnationworld%2Dhed)

"Defense Department officials have launched a quiet campaign in recent weeks to clear reporters out of Baghdad, issuing warnings that suggest an Iraqi conflict would be far more intense than the 1991 gulf war. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The Pentagon insists it is warning journalists in the interest of their safety, and most news executives say they take the comments as such. Still, the warnings are presenting some news executives with a tough decision--whether to stay and cover a crucial story in a deadly war zone.

"Some critics see the Pentagon's heads-up as an attempt to control the news, with the goal of minimizing politically damaging images of suffering Iraqi civilians."

Tribune columnist Clarence Page (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/chi-0303090270mar09,1,5487653.column?coll=chi%2Dnews%2Dcol) recalls his service as an Army journalist during Vietnam:

"In the military culture, military journalism means what civilians call 'public relations' or simply 'spin.' Real journalists, the civilian kind, were viewed as falling into one of two categories, hostiles or friendlies, with very few falling in between.

"My primary job was not to inform the public, I was reminded in so many words by various commanders. My primary job was to help the military. I appreciated the candor of my commanders, although my Inner Journalist kept nagging me to remember my appreciation of the public's right to know what its military is up to. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"That old Inner Journalist speaks to me again as I peruse the 'Coalition Forces Land Component Command Ground Rules Agreement,' which embedded journalists will be required to sign.

"Among other limits, it forbids the release of information that pertains to 'on-going engagements' without a security review, which also is known as censorship. Some censorship is understandable in wartime, but one wonders: What constitutes an on-going engagement? Under the guidelines, it is whatever the commander on the scene says it is."

Sign of the times? Paul Krugman of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/11/opinion/11KRUG.html) is switching to a fixed-rate mortgage.

And how's this for blaming the messenger? Merrill Lynch is barring more than 20,000 of its employees from watching CNBC on their computers, switching instead to Bloomberg Television. Why? "Merrill employees said the switch was spurred, at least in part, by the reactions of some of Merrill's 14,000 brokers and some executives to what has been said about the company by CNBC commentators," the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/11/business/11WALL.html) reports. "Lawrence Kudlow and James J. Cramer, the co-hosts of an evening talk show, have been among the firm's harshest critics."

What's next: canceling Wall Street Journal subscriptions if the paper runs a negative story about Merrill?

Turns out Don Hewitt wasn't wild about the Clinton/Dole faceoff either, says the New York Post: (http://www.nypost.com/entertainment/70388.htm)

"If you were left cold by Sunday night's hotly anticipated '60 Minutes' showdown between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, you weren't alone. '60 Minutes' chief Don Hewitt wasn't happy, either, and said he thought Dole needs work -- and that the feature will have to be juiced up a bit.

"'We're going to make sure it looks like more of a confrontation next time,' Hewitt told The Post. 'I don't think Dole really came to grips in the manner that he's famous for in his response to Clinton, and we're going to try to plug those holes.'

"Hewitt said Dole 'knows he can do better -- he called me and said, "I don't think I was as sharp as I could have been."'

"'Clinton is Clinton -- he's very smooth and there's no question that when he gets through, you know what he said,' Hewitt said. 'But you weren't quite sure whether Dole was talking about a tax cut or fighting Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein at the same time.'"

In the New York Press, Matt Taibbi (http://www.nypress.com/16/11/news&columns/cage.cfm) offers the harshest assessment yet of White House reporters:

"After watching George W. Bush's press conference last Thursday night, I'm more convinced than ever: The entire White House press corps should be herded into a cargo plane, flown to an altitude of 30,000 feet, and pushed out, kicking and screaming, over the North Atlantic. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The Bush press conference to me was like a mini-Alamo for American journalism, a final announcement that the press no longer performs anything akin to a real function. Particularly revolting was the spectacle of the cream of the national press corps submitting politely to the indignity of obviously pre-approved questions, with Bush not even bothering to conceal that the affair was scripted."

Um, actually, there were no pre-approved questions, just a prepared list of reporters for Bush to recognize.

It's not just antiwar Hollywood actors who don't think much of the president, if this piece by Variety (http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story2&cid=599&u=/nm/20030310/media_nm/bart_1&printer=1) Editor Peter Bart is any indication:

"While I read accounts during the election campaign describing George W. Bush as a calm, middle-of-the-road conservative and consensus builder, I somehow missed those stories suggesting that he would be the most radical right-wing president in American history. The press kept telling me what a great guy W was, so why has Mr. Nice Guy alienated every ally in the world?"