WASHINGTON -- Sen. Pat Roberts is a Marine veteran, a knowledgeable member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a loyal conservative Republican. Accordingly, it is hard for him to take issue with what Bush said last week. But as a blunt-spoken Kansan and a patriotic American, Roberts feels constrained to express concern.
"Why are we rattling the cage so much?" asked Roberts, posing a question that might be asked at the Dodge City "coffee klatch" in his hometown. He was stunned by President Bush's remarkable Wednesday press conference that threatened imminent attack against Iraq and did not rule out using tactical nuclear weapons. As a senior GOP member of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, Roberts knows of no change in Saddam Hussein's military posture to warrant the president's stance. "I have a lot of questions," he told me.
Roberts is not alone, though few other senators dare speak out. One who does is Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, another conservative Republican from the Great Plains and another military veteran (combat in Vietnam). As a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, he has listened to foreign leaders alarmed by Bush's comments. "This kind of rhetoric, I think, is dangerous," Hagel told me, "because it does put us in a position where you have to take action or you're going to look like you're bluffing and lose your credibility."
When Bush faced reporters in a formal press conference for the first time in five months Wednesday afternoon, Vice President Dick Cheney was on a whirlwind international mission, presumably testing allied reaction to U.S. military action against Saddam. Still, nobody expected the president's remarkable posture (which, oddly, found its way to relatively few front pages the next morning).
Asked about published reports that the U.S. is considering the use of low-yield nuclear weapons against rogue nations, Bush replied that "we've got all our options on the table." In political talk, that is a "yes." When he was later asked about military action, the president used identical language: "All options are on the table." That raised the possibility of a nuclear attack on Baghdad.
"One thing I will not allow is a nation such as Iraq to threaten
our very future by developing weapons of mass destruction," the president explained. However, briefings to lawmakers have indicated no escalation of Iraq's threat or capability. Saddam is evil but not insane, and no expert imagines him signing his death warrant in a feckless attempt to deliver against the U.S. whatever biological weapons he might possess.
Indeed, in a private conversation with a Republican senator three weeks ago, Bush said there was no intent to attack Iraq "any time soon." So, as this senator (who did not want to be quoted by name) listened in wonder last Wednesday, he asked: "What has changed this?"
A unilateral American attack on Iraq, even limited to conventional weapons, would shatter the global alliance against terrorism. That certainty was confirmed by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak on his recent visit to Washington. Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, in the opinion of Arab leaders, makes an attack on Iraq particularly dangerous.
So, what is George W. Bush up to? The most rational explanation is that the president is pressuring Saddam to agree in full to an unconditional regime of weapons inspection demanded by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
That is clearly Powell's goal, but it is not shared by many colleagues in the national security apparatus (including Cheney). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is publicly skeptical about the ability of inspectors to discover Saddam's secrets.
Ever since Sept. 11, the administration's hawks have seen a golden opportunity to complete the unfinished business of 1991 and remove a loathsome dictator from power. Nobody any longer directly connects this desire with immediate danger to Americans by al Qaeda sleeper cells feared to be operating in this country.
Is the president bluffing? That would be risky, but it offers a more benign explanation of his performance last week. Alternatively, a unilateral decision to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his cabal would set the United States on a course that some of George W. Bush's staunchest supporters fear and dread.