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Bush At Bay 

by Robert Herold

In an interview with Bob Woodward for his recent book Bush at War, the president describes himself as "fiery, impatient, a gut player." Bush characterizes himself as a man who wants results, and doesn't much appreciate reflection if it stands in the way. Woodward suggests that this trait explains why the president so quickly embraced the new world order envisioned by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, a strategy that replaced deterrence and second-strike capability with unilateralism, preemption and a presumption of Pax Americana.

According to Woodward, it was Secretary of State Colin Powell who caused Bush to pause just long enough to rethink the situation and, in the end, take what amounted to a U-turn in the road. Up to that time, the president had been marching to the tune being played by Cheney -- he didn't need to consult, let alone receive support from, the UN, our allies, not even the Congress. Influenced finally by Powell, he wound up consulting all those groups.

Now, some weeks later, with a UN resolution in hand, the goal of disarmament firmly established and weapons inspectors in Iraq, the country can once again claim the moral high ground. Whatever the result, the United States will have given Saddam Hussein every chance to remain in power should he cooperate with the inspectors. War may come, but because of Powell and largely unrecognized bipartisan work by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- supported behind the scenes, no doubt, by senior military officers -- if war comes, it can be fought for reasons that Americans have used in the past: "truth, justice and the American way." Mythology? Perhaps, but nations need their myths.

We should consider how fortunate we are that at a critical time the president was persuaded to run against his own instincts.

Now loosed to return to his moorings, our president has driven over another pothole: He has become so obsessed with Iraq that his administration has shifted to the back burner the threat that most frightens Americans: Al Qaeda.

The president claims to be doing a lot -- after all, the Senate finally voted up his Homeland Security bill, which may or may not produce an agency that actually makes the homeland safer. But the money trail says that his real agenda lies elsewhere, that even the Iraq buildup isn't the top priority. His real agenda, according to how he'd like to see the Pentagon prosecute national security, is the same as it was before 9/11: the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka the "Star Wars" national missile shield.

In August 2001, just weeks before the terrorists struck, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, responding to a Congressional initiative to move money from Star Wars to antiterrorism, threatened the Congress with a presidential veto should they vary from the president's proposed agenda. Then the first priority was Star Wars, and we didn't really have anything except a distant second, antiterrorism -- something those Clintonites were obsessed with. Then, of course, came 9/11, and antiterrorism went to the top of the list, with Iraq waiting in the wings. With the new reality that boxcutters could wreak more havoc than anyone imagined, Star Wars fell off the radar screen.

But now, a little over a year

later, the president's men

have come full circle: Star Wars comes out the big winner in Bush's proposed defense budget. Then comes Iraq, and, down the list, antiterrorism, just the way the administration had it prior to 9/11.

Antiterrorism, as President Bush has repeatedly said, will be a long twilight struggle, to use President Kennedy's words. Patience will be required, as will prudence, together with a new sense of time that brings results in years, not weeks. Americans aren't wired that way, however, and you could say we've already shaken off the chill of the portent delivered on that fateful morning. Moving back to Star Wars fits this rush back to normalcy. If Bush's waffling sense of his own priorities reveals anything, it is that he is quintessentially American.

But this raises a problem: Can a president who admits to being "fiery, impatient, a gut player" manage to keep from rushing down a path that was staked out when the world was a much different place? If he is impatient with critics of a missile-defense system, as he was with critics of his Iraq policy, will he stick with his gut even if it's wrong?

I watched then-Governor Bush's utter inability to connect with, let alone resolve, the terrible tragedy and ambiguity that surrounded the execution of Carla Faye Tucker. I heard his utterly cavalier reporting of Tucker's final pleas, "Oh, please, don't kill me," delivered with a smirk. Ever since then, I have worried about his tendency to trivialize and dehumanize. Clearly, these are traits of one who is fiery, impatient and ruled by instinct.

Will his desire to seek tidy resolution get the best of him? Or did he learn something back in August when Colin Powell made the case for him to keep his instincts at bay? With countless billions and the safety of our nation in the balance, this is the question America wants to see answered. n

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