Bush's self-refuting case for war.

Bush's self-refuting case for war.

Bush's self-refuting case for war.

Politics and policy.
Aug. 16 2002 5:35 PM

Everybody Loves Me, Baby

Bush's self-refuting argument for war with Iraq.

Jordan. Turkey. Germany. England. Henry Kissinger. Brent Scowcroft. Dick Armey. Republican senators. The State Department. American military officers. The circle of governments, officials, and advisers openly critical of President Bush's Iraqi war plans draws ever closer to Bush and his family. Bush argues that his case for war is persuasive and that if he leads, others will follow. But increasingly, he is making that argument to a circle of would-be allies who are unpersuaded and aren't following. He is proving himself wrong.

To understand this dynamic, think of somebody in your office or your family who has firm ideas about what to do and is willing to offend people who see things differently. If you accused this person of alienating others, he would probably reply that leadership, not groveling, is what builds momentum and gets things done. If he succeeded, you might believe him. But if instead he began to lose the support of colleagues or family members, you would begin to doubt him. And if he ended up arguing with everybody that he could make progress by arguing with everybody, you would conclude that the debate had proved him wrong.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


This is what's happening to Bush in the Iraq debate. The multilateralist view—expressed in Thursday's Wall Street Journal by Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Bush's father—is that allies are necessary and that we can't afford to alienate them. "[T]here is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time," wrote Scowcroft. "Ignoring that clear sentiment would result in a serious degradation in international cooperation with us against terrorism. … [W]e simply cannot win that war without enthusiastic international cooperation."

The unilateralist view—expressed in a rebuttal to Scowcroft by Richard Perle, one of Bush's defense policy advisers—holds that if we're resolute, other nations will follow us; or at least that if we're not, they won't. "The failure to take on Saddam after what the president said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism," Perle told the New York Times. Notice the key word: confidence. Even unilateral action requires and seeks to cultivate external support. To wage war, Bush needs backing from his generals and the American public. And as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice acknowledged in a BBC interview Thursday, he needs help from other countries to "make certain that things are better for the people" of Iraq after Saddam Hussein is toppled.

Rice, a staunch unilateralist, said the case for ousting Saddam is "very stunning" and "very powerful." She warned of what might happen "if he gets weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them." But as anyone who has ever worked in marketing knows, "stunning" and "powerful" are words you apply to your product when reviewers and customers won't apply them for you. If the case for invading Iraq were stunning, Rice wouldn't have to say so. She wouldn't have to add a bunch of ifs. And she wouldn't have to make this case to a growing list of open Republican dissenters—including Armey, Kissinger, Secretary of State Colin Powell, anonymous "senior administration officials," and the men who ran the State Department and National Security Council under Bush's father—who see no evidence of an Iraqi role in Sept. 11, no proof that Iraq is close to acquiring nuclear weapons, and no sense in jeopardizing the global war against terror by attacking Iraq against the will of our allies.

Many of the dissenters agree with Bush that Saddam is evil, or that he's dangerous, or that the United States should eventually try to oust him. But that's what makes their opposition to unilateral action so damning. When Bush and Rice have to quarrel with unpersuaded fellow hawks over whether the case for an imminent invasion of Iraq is persuasive, it manifestly isn't. And when they assert, amid declining support and increasingly outspoken resistance within their own elite, that international worry will give way to international support, the claim rings hollow.

Bush can argue all day about the power of presidential leadership to rally the public, or about the power of American leadership to rally the world. As long as he's having that argument with his political friends and allies, he's refuting himself.