Disregarding warnings that the coalition fighting Saddam Hussein may break up, George Bush, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft -- the president's preeminent, most trusted Gulf war confidant -- and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney are watching military bomb damage assessments more closely than the peace overtures winging in from Tehran or Moscow.
One old friend privately calls the war president downright "stubborn" for not "taking Iran's hand" and testing Saddam for some way that might lead to mediating an early end of the conflict without sacrificing the United Nations' objective.
Bush will have none of it, and he gets full support from Scowcroft, now his indispensable alter ego in a power shift away from Secretary of State James A. Baker III so subtle it has gone unnoticed even in the capital. If Jim Baker warns that the coalition is getting dangerously fragile, Bush responds, no, the coalition is unbreakable. Scowcroft and Cheney agree.
Bush, Scowcroft and Cheney are the war-controlling triumvirate that has given the administration spectacular political stature and soaring poll numbers far beyond reach in domestic affairs. While Baker wisely pondered the ugly negatives of America's first war against an Arab state back in early August, Scowcroft and Cheney instinctively and immediately reinforced Bush's decision that Iraq's seizure of Kuwait "will not stand."
The president has never formally anointed Scowcroft and Cheney to be his war cabinet, with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin Powell as his emissary to commanders in the field. But that is what they have become. As for Bush's close friend Baker, the secretary of state has never been able to conceal his concern about potentially devastating implications of the Gulf war on America's future. As a result, he is operating outside the inner circle.
Last week, when the secretary told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his plans for a postwar international bank of "reconstruction," senators of all parties and persuasions showered him with compliments. But in the White House, no one was pleased. Likewise, Baker's coalition-mending "joint statement" with Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh about ending the war and moving on to "comprehensive" solutions of Arab-Israeli issues irritated the president.
"That was the first time anyone heard Bush express any annoyance with Jim Baker," an administration source told us. With Scowcroft in control, deputy national security adviser Robert Gates is where the president wants his postwar strategic planning operation to originate, not in the State Department.
The strength of the triumvirate is its inner confidence, which could turn out to be Bush's weakness if the war turns sour. While some State Department operatives and foreign friends wring their hands over dangerous restiveness inside the coalition -- for example, Morocco and Pakistan (with troops in Saudi Arabia) and the Soviet Union (with none) -- Bush privately disdains such fears.
There is too much second-guessing about his allies pulling apart, he tells aides. The coalition, he adds, is showing more strength and adhesion than anyone thought possible at the outset.
Given this self-confident conviction, it is natural that Cheney's recommendation to continue the bombing for another two or three weeks was at once acceptable to Bush. The president's best intelligence early this week was that another two weeks of successful bombing would reduce the overall military capability of Iraq's forces in and near Kuwait to 70 percent of their prewar strength.
To Bush, saving American lives and "forcing" Saddam out of Kuwait are paramount, and the coalition will take care of itself. Scowcroft, a solid staff man whose caution is legendary, agrees. He has been unusually bold and decisive in supporting Bush's instincts as war president, displaying his caution only in side issues: he has tried to end Bush's shifting definition of war aims and to curb his boss's over-personalized rhetoric.
A key presidential adviser believes Bush will be unpredictable in the next few weeks as he decides how to prosecute his war. "He likes to do the unexpected," this official said, predicting a good deal of ground action, including major probes, skirmishes and withdrawals, while the air campaign continues in full force.
If Bush's luck in war holds, so will his system for running it with what may be the thinnest thread of advisers and the narrowest base for decision-making in any war in our history.