On the plane ride to Prague for last week's NATO summit, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell talked for hours about the confrontation with Iraq. When he reached the Czech capital, Powell called his friend and alter ego, Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, to describe the president's mood of calm deliberation.
Yet addressing students in Prague last Wednesday, the president's saber-rattling speech spawned Thursday-morning headlines worldwide. He made the Dec. 8 deadline, imposed by the United Nations for Saddam Hussein to inventory weapons of mass destruction, sound like an ultimatum. "Should he again deny that this arsenal exists," said Bush, "he will have entered his final stage with a lie." The president implied that there might be no awaiting a verdict from U.N. weapons inspectors just arrived back in Baghdad and that the Iraqi dictator would suffer "the severest consequences."
How does this fierce rhetoric square with the president's private restraint? To one of Powell's associates, Bush was just cooling off "the red-meat eaters at the Pentagon." Knowledgeable senators agree that the president is taking a measured course toward Hussein that is far removed from unilateral attacks. It may end in war, but that is no longer Bush's goal, if it ever was. In Prague, he never returned to his abandoned goal of "regime change" in Baghdad.
The president is dealing with no mere disagreement inside his administration about tactics but with a debate about the U.S. role in the Middle East and the world. Bush has gone well beyond what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and their nongovernmental advisers have opposed. They did not want U.N. involvement, weapons inspectors, coalition-building or even an active role by Powell. Until Bush accepted Powell's advice on returning U.N. weapons inspectors, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld publicly dismissed renewed inspections as a waste of time.
Once it became clear that Hussein would agree to inspectors, Richard Perle -- chairman of the Defense Policy Board -- attacked the credibility of chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. By the time he arrived in Baghdad last week, Blix had been a dartboard for advocates of attack-Iraq-now.
In an interview with Rumsfeld from Prague last Thursday, I asked about Perle's criticism. "Mr. Perle is speaking for himself and not speaking as an official of the U.S. government," Rumsfeld said, but added, "I don't know Mr. Blix." He then expressed skepticism about "any inspector" being successful in Iraq. That contrasts with the hero's welcome that Bush gave Blix at the White House after he pressed the Security Council for adoption of the Iraq resolution.
Beyond inspections, Powell stands athwart an Israel-centric policy in the Middle East that would reshape the region's balance of power to U.S.-Israeli specifications. The world's staunchest advocate of direct action against Iraq has been Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who continues to make clear, privately and publicly, that Hussein's removal from power would deliver a devastating blow to Palestinian terrorists.
According to the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz strategic thinking, the change of regime in oil-rich Iraq would allow for an end to traditional U.S. energy dependence on and military alliance with Saudi Arabia. In contrast, Powell still is seeking a resolution of Iraq's fate under which the Saudi royal regime would remain allied with Washington.
These deep disagreements within the administration were exacerbated last week when The Post published excerpts of Bob Woodward's new book, "Bush at War," in which Powell was portrayed more favorably than Rumsfeld. Critics of the secretary of state have complained that Powell opened up to Woodward to help himself and damage his adversaries. In truth, the president directed White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card to instruct all officials to cooperate fully with Woodward.
Aggravation about the Woodward book is a symbol of deeper concerns by the administration's hawks. If Hussein opposes or stalls the inspectors, he surely faces multinational military action to seal his fate. But what if he cooperates and no cache of weapons is found? The calm and collected George W. Bush who talked with Powell on the way to Prague seems ready to accept that outcome.
(c)2002, Creators Syndicate Inc.