Ballot Box

The Triangle Offense

How Bush is winning the war over going to war with Iraq.

For the past decade, hawks, doves, and moderates have debated whether to use force or persuasion to change the behavior of the Iraqi government. Last week, the moderates scored two apparent victories. Military officials disclosed that they had dissuaded the Bush administration from attacking Iraq until at least winter, and diplomats at the United Nations Security Council boasted to the New York Times that they were undercutting American hawks by pushing to resume weapons inspections in Iraq.

It looks like another triumph of triangulation: The doves want to lift sanctions against Iraq; the hawks want an invasion; and the moderates win by splitting the difference. But before you can triangulate, somebody has to set up the triangle. That’s how the hawks, led by President Bush, are winning the war over going to war. They’ve pushed American and global expectations so far toward military conflict that those who want to dissuade or undercut them have to shift positions in order to keep up. The middle is moving to the right.

Roughly speaking, the last three presidencies offer three models for dealing with international conflict. In the Clinton model, the United States mediates disputes among countries pursuing their own agendas. In the George H.W. Bush model, the United States seeks support for its own agenda but ultimately accepts the limits of international consensus. In the Reagan model, the United States pursues its own agenda whether others like it or not. George W. Bush is basically following the Reagan model. The argument against this model is that if the United States doesn’t play the role of mediator, nobody else will. The argument for the Reagan model is just the opposite: If the United States stops coddling its allies by playing the role of mediator, they’ll have to step in and play that role, and we’ll get half of what we want.

As Slate’s Jacob Weisberg recently observed, the case for invading Iraq has two glaring flaws. One is logistics. The Iraqi regime is stronger than the Taliban. Its enemies are weaker than the Taliban’s enemies. The United States has fewer allies than it had in Afghanistan. Our government is split three ways over which of the mutually hostile Iraqi opposition groups to support. And we have no sound plan for averting chaos if Saddam Hussein falls.

The other flaw is that there’s no clear connection between Iraq and Sept. 11. A week ago, in its annual report on global terrorism, the U.S. State Department linked  al-Qaida to Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, but not to Iraq. True, the State Department may be the Cabinet agency least eager to implicate Iraq in Sept. 11. But Bush, who is manifestly eager to draw the connection, ducked a challenge to explain that connection in a press conference last month with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

So how does Bush justify attacking Iraq? He doesn’t. He shifts the burden of justification to his opponents. The question in the wake of Sept. 11, he argues, isn’t whether Saddam did it, but whether we can risk allowing Saddam to do something like it. Imagine al-Qaida’s agents armed with Saddam’s nukes. “We can’t let it happen,” Bush pleaded last month. To those who point out that this coupling is imaginary, Bush replied in Germany last week, “The threats of weapons of mass destruction [are] real. … I know some would play like they’re not real. I’m telling you, they’re real.” You say Bush is deluding himself about what happened; he says you’re deluding yourself about what could happen. Rather than explain why an invasion is acceptable, Bush’s aides emphasize that “the status quo is unacceptable.” And to those who think we should wait for Saddam to die, they argue, in the words of Vice President Dick Cheney, that things will get worse “if we do nothing and one of his sons succeeds him.”

Bush takes the same approach to the question of whether he will (never mind whether he should) invade Iraq. The assurances he gave the French last week—that he would “consult” U.S. allies and had “no military plans on my desk that calls for—that plots out a military operation”—meant nothing. Indeed, the latter slip betrayed that Bush has seen a general war proposal, if not a detailed one. Likewise, Bush’s promise to the Germans to “use more than our military might,” such as financial pressure, diplomacy, and intelligence, was a clever way of not promising to use less.

The result is that everyone wonders not whether Bush will invade Iraq, but whether he might be persuaded not to. Reports of opposition from American military leaders only underscore the psychological shift. “Military Bids to Postpone Iraq Invasion,” blared the front page of the May 24 Washington Post. The key words—”bid” and “postpone”— conveyed that invasion was the default option and that the debate focused less on whether than on when. Europeans, too, are bracing for an attack. “Is there any way that [Saddam] can address your concerns and stay in power?” German TV reporter Claus Kleber asked Bush a week ago. “Or are we drifting towards a war?”

The expectation that Bush will go to war completely changes the context in which Iraq, the Europeans, and the U.N. Security Council discuss weapons inspections. In 1998, Saddam terminated the inspections after jerking around the inspectors for years. Until last year, the impasse was the security council’s problem. Now, it’s Saddam’s problem. “He needs to prove that he isn’t developing weapons of mass destruction,” Bush declared last month. If Saddam doesn’t let the inspectors back in, Bush will assume he’s building nukes and will attack. This position puts bargaining power in the hands of the inspectors. The chief inspector “has made it clear that the only way he will go back in is if he is allowed to do what he believes is necessary” to verify compliance, Secretary of State Colin Powell reported three weeks ago.

Suddenly, other governments are eager to get the inspectors back in and tighten enforcement of U.N. sanctions on Iraq. At a joint appearance with Bush last week, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for “political pressure” to make Saddam resume inspections. Schröder’s proposal was portrayed as dissent from Bush’s war plan. But without Bush’s plan, we probably wouldn’t have heard Schröder’s proposal. Two weeks ago, Syria voted for revised sanctions in the security council, explaining that it was doing so to promote a peaceful resolution of the Iraqi impasse. Even Saddam, according to the Post, “has behaved better than usual in recent months.”

Naturally, opponents of an invasion are patting themselves on the back about all this. They’re scheming “to help Colin Powell over [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld,” a European diplomat explained to the Times last week. “The idea is that if you deploy hundreds of inspectors … and they are not prevented from doing a good job by the Iraqi authorities … then it will be very difficult for the Pentagon” to persuade Bush that war is necessary. Another European added, “The more the security council remains united on forcing Iraq to fulfill its obligations … the more the hands of the doves are strengthened in Washington.” Gotta hand it to those Europeans. They’re playing Bush like a violin.