What was it about the look on President George W. Bush's face while he delivered the State of the Union address Tuesday night? That grin, I thought as I watched the president of all the people. It seemed infuriatingly familiar. But why?
Then it came to me. I've seen grins like that on the faces of men who have just bluffed me out of a big pot at the poker table with nothing in their hands.
Bush may be president of the people, but he is not president by the people. Most Americans who voted in the 2000 election cast their ballots for someone else. He is president because a majority of one on the Supreme Court decided he should be.
No wonder the man's grinning. He has taken that fluke and turned it into a mandate to change America militarily, diplomatically, economically and culturally. The address and the grin with which it was delivered were reminders of all that.
Chief among these is the war in Iraq, where hundreds of Americans have died.
Gone was the charge of a year ago - based on false information, as it turned out - that Iraq under Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the security of the United States, including attempts to purchase the makings of a nuclear bomb. Now the talk is of "building a new Iraq" and "transition to full Iraqi sovereignty by the end of June."
Read that "getting out of Iraq," so the stench of the Mesopotamian adventure won't be reeking around Bush's re-election campaign. Of course, U. S. soldiers will still be there to protect whatever form that sovereignty takes. And if the majority Shiites have their way, it will be on the basis of one-man-one-vote with a likely Shiite fundamentalist victory. How Washington is going to prevent that from happening without going back on its word will be a great test.
Meanwhile, Americans will continue to die in Iraq.
It's interesting that in his State of the Union address, Bush threw out a lot of numbers, but did not cite the number of Americans who have died in Iraq since he launched the war in March - more than 500 American men and women since then, 367 of them since May 1, when Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq.
"Of the top 55 officials of the former [Iraqi] regime, we have captured or killed 45," Bush boasted Tuesday night. That's about an 11-to-1 ratio.
"Our forces are on the offensive, leading over 1,600 patrols a day and conducting an average of 180 raids a week," he said. No mention of the number of Americans, and Iraqis, for that matter, killed by car bombs, mortar attacks and the roadside "improvised explosive devices."
When seven astronauts were killed in the tragic explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in February, Bush, sensing the need to represent the American people, went to attend the memorial service at the Houston space center. Has he been to a single funeral for any of the people he sent to die in Iraq? No. And the press is not allowed to cover the arrival of bodies from Iraq at the U.S. Air Force base in Dover, Del.
The question is not whether Saddam Hussein was a brutal man with dangerous ambitions. It is whether the United States was entitled, or needed, to invade pre-emptively, immediately and alone - albeit with the help of the British and some hitherto-insignificant allies. It's whether more time might have prevented the killing and ensuing chaos in Iraq.
The president actually answered that question without meaning to do so. He answered it when he bragged about the decision by Libya's Muammar el Kadafi to give up on his nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs.
"Nine months of intense negotiations involving the United States and Great Britain succeeded with Libya, while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not," Bush said. "And one reason is clear: For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America."
Was he grinning when he said that? He should have been, because the idea that it took only nine months to bring around the Libyans is preposterous. Try more than three decades while Kadafi, for a long while with the support of East German intelligence, was unquestionably a major player in international terrorism. There was a time when he was as reviled as Osama bin Laden is today. Kadafi wasn't brought around in nine months of negotiations. It took a bombing by Reagan in the mid-1980s - not a very successful one, actually - and years of sanctions and negotiations to bring him around.
The same might be said some day for the North Koreans and the Iranians. North Korea has nuclear weapons capacity. Iran could get there soon. Why do we invade and occupy a country on phony information that it was trying to make nukes, and not invade and occupy a country we know can make them? Why are we willing to talk with the North Koreans and have more patience with the Iranians? They didn't arrive on the scene yesterday. North Korea has been a sworn enemy of the United States for a half-century; Iran for almost a quarter-century.
Because it makes sense; that's why. Just as it would have made sense to give diplomacy more time with Iraq - at least more time to win the support of our historic and important allies and the United Nations, the very parties Bush now is trying to coax into helping in Iraq.
But that was not to be. As former Bush administration Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill recently revealed, Bush and his managers were determined to go to war against Iraq from the day they were placed in power. And they have had their way, at the cost so far of lost stature and more than 500 American lives.
And that's no grinning matter.
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