With an American gun lying on the table, Iraq finally indicated yesterday that it will admit U.N. weapons inspectors. That begins the countdown to a moment of truth Saddam Hussein has long postponed. President Bush's campaign to get Congress and the United Nations to order Iraq to disarm, or else, is working.
Yet gloom is said to blanket Rumsfeldian hard-liners at the Pentagon, while euphoria lofts Powellites at the State Department and in the media. Shouldn't it be the other way around?
It should. But hidden, long-term issues of substance and fierce personal ambition skew the initial perceptions of what is in fact a promising situation for those who favor regime change in Iraq. This struggle is not just about the ambitions of those larger-than-life figures Don Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. It is not even largely about Iraq anymore.
The long, often bitter debate within the administration about going to the United Nations at all was part of a consuming battle over who controls policy in Washington. It was about the determination of Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and, I would guess, the president to get control over civilian and military bureaucracies that tilt, thwart or dismantle overarching policies they oppose, one day at a time.
This is a recurring struggle in Washington. But it is particularly intense in this administration and on this issue. The battle now runs through the competing scenarios describing the day after, the months after and the decade after the fall of Saddam Hussein that are being written in at least four different offices within the administration.
Most of these scenarios will tilt inevitably toward the clients and interests of the bureaucracies writing them. The future of the Iraqi people is secondary to career and institutional imperatives for many in Washington.
Not surprisingly, the State Department, the CIA and others will not tell you that. And this is a fight the president does not want to acknowledge, much less settle in public. It grinds on in the shadows of government behind the misleading public facade of which personalities and factions are momentarily up or down.
Another blurring factor is Bush's confusing but effective style of ceding to Powell and the bureaucracy on procedure, while eventually siding with Cheney and Rumsfeld on substance. Powell has it right when he says he kept the U.N. deliberations and vote from tying Bush's hands -- unless, at the end of the day, Bush wants his hands tied.
The hawks are said to be depressed over losing wording battles in the writing of the Security Council resolution that Iraq has grudgingly accepted. That gloom misses two key points: Bush gave the Pentagon an unusual and significant role in drafting the resolution, despite State Department heartburn and obstruction. And Washington hung tough enough on inspection terms to make defiance by Saddam Hussein likely and lethal for him at some point.
George Shultz offers enlightenment on the perception problems. The former secretary of state once said that the hardest thing in Washington crises is to remember what it was that you had set out to do at the start. It is even harder for the media to keep rapidly changing goals in perspective.
Powell did not set out to get America to the brink of war with Iraq. His program was to continue the Clinton administration's policy of handling Hussein as a public relations problem: Ease economic sanctions on Iraq and show the Muslim world the United States is a good guy. End of story for Powell pre-Sept. 11, pre-war on terrorism.
Now Powell talks of Hussein as an urgent menace sure to slip out of his box if action is postponed again. I once incurred the secretary's wrath by writing a soliloquy column that purported to sound like him. For the past two months on Iraq, Powell has sounded like me. I find no cause for gloom in that.
The battle continues: Cheney reportedly exploded recently when he found that the State Department and the CIA, aided by Senate staffers, had blocked a $4 million appropriation he favored to fund an intelligence collection program inside Iraq by dissident forces.
In bureaucratic terms, the program would have strengthened Rumsfeld's hand in intelligence. It would have also helped the Iraqi National Congress, which the State Department and CIA fight in much the subterranean and spiteful way the United States opposed (and permanently alienated) Charles de Gaulle in World War II.
Two teams of eight CIA agents each, with interpreters, were recently inserted secretly into northern Iraq to work with the rival Kurdish forces of Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talibani. Washington policymakers nominally insist on a united Iraqi opposition. But the agency is seeking to carve out Kurdistan as a separate fiefdom, free from Rumsfeldian influence.
That covert power play will have more impact on the day or the decade after than will theoretical scenarios about territorial unity and democracy in Iraq.
Walt Kelly's cartoon character Pogo used to say that we have met the enemy and he is us. George W. Bush is meeting the real U.S. government and finding out -- Pogo to the contrary -- it is not him.