Is the finger-pointing about to begin?

Are heads ready to roll?

Is the White House a simmering volcano, ready to blow?

Let's face it, the latest couple of weeks haven't been a smashing success for the Bush team. The United Nations is in revolt, some of the allies have jumped ship and we can't even bribe Turkey into letting us use their precious turf.

Usually, this would be the time when unnamed officials would be telling reporters how other officials have screwed up.

That is not the modus operandi in Bush World. Everyone sings off the same sheet of music. Loyalty is at a premium. Leaks -- especially about internecine warfare -- are regarded as treasonous.

After 9/11 and Afghanistan, top officials were virtually unanimous in telling the press (and Bob Woodward) about President Bush's steely resolve and decisive action. Victory may have a thousand fathers, but in Bush land there's only one Big Daddy, and he got the credit.

It's endlessly frustrating for reporters, but very few officials talk in this White House, or stray beyond the talking points. So penetrating the official curtain has been extraordinarily difficult.

But what if things fall apart diplomatically, the war doesn't go all that well or post-Saddam Iraq turns into a chaotic and expensive mess? Will the human urge to deflect blame trump the orderly bureaucracy that Bush has built? Or will we have to wait for the memoirs to find out who's been shouting at whom behind closed doors?

Newsweek's (http://www.msnbc.com/news/884259.asp?0cv=KA01) Howard Fineman smells trouble ahead:

"I'm waiting for war to break out -- not in Iraq, but in the Bush administration. I'm wondering what's going through Colin Powell's mind. The secretary of State is looking pretty grim these days, like a man going through the motions. Might he bail out after a not-too-distant decent interval? Friends say no, he's a team player. 'But he's not a happy camper,' one admits.

"In the meantime, who's going to be blamed for the Turkey screwup, or the U.N. screwups? Who's going to leak the authoritative -- and explosive -- estimates of the true cost of maintaining 100,000 troops in Iraq for the indefinite future? (One general already has been whacked for piping up, but there will be others.) Who's going to take the fall for the fact that we've lost the international moral high ground? The world is blaming the president, of course, but that's not the way things work here. Someone else goes down. Who? The 'neocons'? Donald Rumsfeld? The State Department? Dick Cheney? Condi Rice?

"Maybe everything will go so swimmingly in Iraq that it'll be one big happy family here at home. Maybe the war will last only a few days and Iraqis will be in the streets, joyfully greeting GIs as liberators. Maybe a world that now sees us as an imperial pariah will suddenly acknowledge the wisdom of our ways. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"But few think it's going to be that easy. And my guess is that team discipline inside the Bush administration is about to be fractured by the collateral damage that already is being caused by a war we have yet to fight. We are embarrassingly alone diplomatically, and State Department underlings (privately) blame Rumsfeld & Co.

"Inside the Pentagon -- but outside of Rumsfeld's office -- I'm told that E-Ring brass have adopted what one source calls a 'Vietnam mentality,' a sense of resignation about a policy (military occupation of Iraq) they seriously doubt will work. For their part, the neocons view Pentagon and State as hives of careerists wimps. No one dares take on Cheney; no one is sure Rice has the clout to keep it all together. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Hardliners, never enamored of going the U.N. route, are saying 'I told you so' in private, and soon will do it publicly. From the Powellites' point of view, the bad guys are going out of their way to make things difficult. The latest example: Rumsfeld's curt statement (later recanted) that the U.S. was prepared to go it alone without the British."

Salon's (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2003/03/13/dems/index1.html) Joan Walsh says the Democratic contenders are failing a crucial test:

"Not just Kerry but the whole pack of '04 candidates seems overmatched by the current global crisis. In a disturbing Adam Nagourney piece in Monday's New York Times, dithering Democrats were featured complaining that in Iowa, nobody wants to listen to their speeches about women's issues or unemployment or the healthcare crisis; they only want to talk about war! Even Dean, who's benefited most from the surge of antiwar feeling in Iowa, whined to Nagourney: 'I had a press conference and it was all about the war. And finally I said, "Would anybody like to talk about the enormous jump in the unemployment rate that was announced in the morning papers?"' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Some reporters have taken to covering Iowans' obsession with the war as one of those eccentricities the primary system subjects us to every four years, like the overweening influence of the right-wing Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, or the candidates' justifiably ridiculed obsession with ethanol in the 2000 Iowa contest. Last week I watched a Des Moines Register columnist on CNN explaining his fellow Iowans' worries about war as though he was describing the offbeat cultural beliefs and habits of an exotic, isolated tribe that happens to sit on suddenly valuable land.

"In fact, Iowans are very much in the American mainstream, and they're way ahead of the Democratic pack. They know that sadly, war matters most right now, and Democrats who complain about it don't deserve to win Iowa, let alone the presidency. What the befuddlement about war shows is that even the best of the current crop are campaigning to be managers, not leaders; they're at home with the business of fundraising and event-scheduling and policy briefings; they seem at a loss to respond to the ever-changing, life-and-death circumstances of a world on the verge of war."

Hey, everyone's got flaws.

As for that absolutely, positively firm diplomatic deadline, it's melting away again, as the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/13/international/middleeast/13CND-IRAQ.html) reports:

"The Bush administration, acknowledging today that its drive to build support for a new United Nations resolution on Iraq had bogged down, said it was willing to postpone the vote until next week, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell even suggested that Washington might simply drop its push for a vote altogether. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"For the last week, President Bush insisted that Friday was the iron-fast deadline for a decision, and that the United States would call for a vote by then no matter what the vote count appeared to be. But with the diplomatic situation deteriorating, Secretary Powell's statement showed that the Bush administration was moving to hedge its bets.

"In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair also said that chances were dimming for passage of the resolution, which would provide broad United Nations backing for a military move against Baghdad. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"As their prospects darkened, both Washington and London angrily laid blame today on the French."

Abortion opponents are getting their wish, the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-abort14mar14,1,2420544.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines) says:

"The Senate yesterday easily passed a Republican-sponsored bill that would ban a controversial form of abortion, making it virtually certain the measure becomes law.

"The GOP-controlled House is expected to swiftly approve the bill that would subject doctors to prison time if they perform the procedure foes call 'partial-birth' abortion. President Bush has vowed to sign the bill, and praised the Senate for taking an 'important step toward building a culture of life in America.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Abortion rights groups, who contend the bill is the first step in outlawing abortions entirely, condemned the measure, which passed the Senate 64-33."

Counting on paying no taxes for stock dividends? Looks like you can kiss that idea goodbye, says the Wall Street Journal:

"Prospects dimmed significantly for President Bush's proposed dividend-tax repeal, after four pivotal senators put in writing that they wouldn't support a tax-cut package larger than $350 billion.

"Unless the White House can change their minds or win over other allies, the elimination of dividend taxes for stockholders -- the centerpiece of the administration's 10-year, $725 billion economic plan -- is in jeopardy."

The four are Olympia Snowe, George Voinovich, Max Baucus and John Breaux.

Antiwar actors get a good bashing as partisan hypocrites from OpinionJournal's (http://www.opinionjournal.com/diary/?id=110003188) John Fund:

"Hollywood celebrities have become the most visible opponents of liberating Iraq. But as proof that where you stand depends on whether your friends are in power, let's look back at how those same celebrities reacted when Bill Clinton deployed U.S. power in Afghanistan, Sudan and Kosovo.

"Actor Mike Farrell, best known for his role as Trapper John's replacement in 'M*A*S*H,' has emerged as a leading antiwar activist. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. But in 1999, Mr. Farrell defended the Clinton administration's rationale for war in Kosovo: 'I think it's appropriate for the international community in situations like this to intervene. I am in favor of an intervention.' To avoid casualties, the Clinton administration had bombers fly at such high altitudes that 'collateral damage' to civilians was bound to increase.

"Hollywood stars were oddly silent when Mr. Clinton dropped bombs on Afghanistan and an aspirin factory in Sudan in 1998 in an unsuccessful attempt to deter Osama bin Laden. They were silent when, also in 1998, Mr. Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act into law and made regime change official U.S. policy. Andrew Breitbart, who is writing a book on Hollywood, jokes that 'to not notice this, the stars would have to have been sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom, or perhaps performing at the White House.'

"Indeed, in 1999 singer Judy Collins--best known for her soulful renditions of antiwar songs--actually sang at a White House gala at the very moment that U.S. and NATO bombs were flattening parts of Belgrade--accidentally destroying the Chinese Embassy in the process.

"Similarly, singer Sheryl Crow is appalled by George Bush's moves against Iraq, but she had no problem with Bill Clinton's intervention in the Balkans. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the singer accompanied Hillary Clinton on a USO tour to entertain U.S. troops in Bosnia."

Andrew Sullivan (http://www.andrewsullivan.com) rips Pat Buchanan, beginning with a quote from Buchanan's American Conservative piece on Iraq:

"'For whose benefit these endless wars in a region that holds nothing vital to America save oil, which the Arabs must sell us to survive? Who would benefit from a war of civilizations between the West and Islam? Answer: one nation, one leader, one party. Israel, Sharon, Likud.'

"Does anyone else hear the rhetorical echo here of 'Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer'? It seems to me that it should be perfectly legitimate to talk about the influence of, say, AIPAC, in Washington; and indeed, the force of thinkers sympathetic to the state of Israel on American foreign policy. As Mike Kinsley tartly notes, if AIPAC can boast of its own influence, why can't others decry it?

"But the notion that this war needs justification beyond what is obviously America's and the West's self-interest seems to me to be paranoid and a little creepy. I'm not going to rehearse all the arguments again -- but as a red-blooded British-born Irish Catholic, I need no Jewish heritage to appreciate them. And the fact that Buchanan doesn't even fully address the broader reasons and instead goes off on a rant against some American Jews is proof enough of where he's coming from. These are ugly times. And they just got uglier."

The Nation's (http://thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030331&s=corn) David Corn digs a little deeper into Howard Dean's record, calling him "an unintentional liberal":

"Antiwar, favoring universal healthcare, trashing Bushonomics--is Dean shaping up as a hope for unreconstructed liberals? It's not that simple. And he admits it.

"During an interview, Dean acknowledges that he battled fiercely with the Progressive Party of Vermont. In fact, he's even boasted, 'The Progressives hate me because they're all big liberals and I'm not, and I've stopped them on many occasions.' What has Dean stopped them from doing? 'Raising taxes, mainly,' he says. 'We believe that balanced budgets are important.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Dean takes pleasure in being an odd duck -- ardently pro-choice; opposed to new, federal gun control; in favor of expanding the social safety net; and fiscally conservative. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"On many issues, Dean lines up--or ends up--on the left, although occasionally with a twist. Asked about affirmative action, he angrily assails Bush for dishonestly and exploitatively using the word 'quotas' in attacking affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. Yet he also calls for basing affirmative action on 'income and class' distinctions as well as race. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"On bluntness, though, Dean doesn't always come across as McCainesque. An example of less-than-straight talk: Dean often brags about his A rating from the NRA. But when asked whether he considers the gun lobby a positive social force, rather than answering the query directly he outlines his own gun policy: Maintain the assault weapons ban, keep the Brady Bill's waiting period for gun purchases, close the gun-show loopholes and then permit states 'to make as much or as little gun law as they need.'

"And what of the NRA? 'In Vermont,' he says, 'the NRA was very helpful' in his effort to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres. But what does Dean think of an NRA that has opposed the few gun-control measures he supports? Dean won't say a bad word about the organization."

Could I'm-really-not-that-liberal be the new Dean theme? The Wall Street Journal has a similar piece:

"Vermonters think they know Howard Dean pretty well after his 20 years in state politics, the last 11 as governor. But lately they hardly recognize the Democrat -- at least not as he has been portrayed on the national stage since he began running for president.

"'Folks in the media, and especially the Republican spinners, are doing their best to make Howard a lefty,' says longtime Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, who knows lefties, being a member of the state's liberal Progressive Party. 'Those of us in Vermont know he's a moderate, and very much a pragmatist. And,' he adds with emphasis, 'a fiscal conservative.'"

USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2003-03-13-dean-usat_x.htm) also has an upbeat piece on Dean, but says he's starting to draw more critical scrutiny:

"The former governor acknowledges that his rhetoric can be unpresidential. Some political analysts suggest he needs to be more careful. Until recently, he did not cite [the late Minnesota senator Paul] Wellstone as the source of his applause line. And at a nationally televised abortion rights benefit in January, Dean told a powerful story but left out a key fact.

"A pregnant 12-year-old came to his medical office. 'After I had talked to her for a while, I came to the conclusion that the likely father of her child was her own father,' he told his riveted audience. 'You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea.'

"What Dean didn't say was that he knew the father was not responsible; someone else was convicted. He defended his account in an interview with USA TODAY: 'The point of the story was that I suspected it was her father and (notification) clearly would have been a very serious problem.'"

Interested in the Sy Hersh vs. Richard Perle dustup? Check out our report in The Washington Post. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A23380-2003Mar13.html And you can read Hersh's New Yorker (http://newyorker.com/printable/?fact/030317fa_fact) piece.

Conservatives seem to be fixated on the notion that Hillary might run sooner rather than later, as Kathryn Jean Lopez explores in National Review: (http://nationalreview.com/lopez/lopez031203.asp)

"Will Hillary Rodham Clinton run for president? The question has vexed us for years. Recent rumors suggest that we might not have to wait until 2007, that we'll have the answer later this year, when she jumps in the ring for the 2004 prize.

"Democrats will draft her to run before we hit primary season, or so some of the prognostication goes. The current edition of U.S. News and World Report, in its 'Washington Whispers' column, predicts: 'If a favorite other than Sharpton doesn't become obvious by late fall, look for a strong effort to draft Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Dems may be coyly floating the idea, but a number of pundits and analysts from both parties dismiss it. One Democratic insider tells NRO: 'That's just a conservative fantasy.'

"The timing's just not right, most agree. Crystal-ball reader Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia speculates: 'Hillary herself realizes the time is not right. It's too soon after Pardon-gate, Furniture-gate, and all the Clinton-gates to try for a comeback. Public memory is short, but not this short.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"If you have to put money down, don't shoot too high with Hillary, at least for challenging W. But, if you've already ordered them, don't throw out the Hillary '04 bumper stickers or op-research binders -- depending on which side you're on -- just yet."

Hey, the vast right-wing conspiracy types can dream, can't they?