January 26, 2004
by P.M. Carpenter
TV-mag journalist Diane Sawyer recently asked the president why, in the prewar stage, he portrayed Iraqi weapons as an imminent threat to U.S. security when intelligence reports, replete with cautionary tones and caveats, more often referred to potentialities. The president answered, "So what's the difference?"
Those were astonishing words, even for famously indifferent George W. Bush. Impossible to know is if he let them escape out of peerless arrogance or mere ignorance; yet, using his own standard of critical analysis, what difference does it make? The frightening reality is this: Either a want in character or deficiency of intellect has produced a president capable of dragging the nation to unparalleled heights of international loathing, all the while he without a clue or a care.
The world simply doesn't trust us any longer -- a reversal of goodwill in lightening time -- yet Mr. Bush pretends it's only because of some silly difference of opinion over some petty difference about what was real and what was not.
Perhaps if the president engaged the world by at least reading newspapers he could grasp the unpleasant diplomatic consequences of crying wolf. According to a front-page report in the Washington Post last week, no less than foreign policy analysts who then sat in the president's pro-invasion corner are now in anguish over sinking, or rather sunken, U.S. credibility abroad.
Defense Advisory Board member and war hawk Kenneth Adelman, for example, complained "the foreign policy blow-back" from the administration's rhetorical hyperbole "is pretty serious." He noted the damage done to exercising future, legitimate actions against imminent threats to national security. In effect, the Bush doctrine had one shot at proving itself justifiable, but the postwar absence of damning evidence has only served to shoot down our credibility instead. (For those egg-on-the-face conservatives who now advance the curious defense that the always-wrong Clinton administration also believed in damning evidence, try to remember this much: It didn't slap on six-shooters and go blasting its way into Baghdad, only later to say, "Oops.")
Richard Haass -- Council on Foreign Relations president, former assistant to State Secretary Colin Powell and good Republican -- joined Adelman's critical ranks. Not only have U.S. allegations about North Korea's nuclear capability been thrown into question as a result of the Iraqi WMD fiasco, similar and quite valid allegations against other hostile nations, said Haass, could be dismissed by the international community as so much swashbuckling. The giant gap between Bush's imaginary rhetoric and proven reality has made it "more difficult on some future occasion if the United States argues the intelligence warrants something controversial, like a preventive attack," Haass concluded.
One can try piercing that argument from many angles, but it would seem impenetrable. Only the most diehard apologist or hyper-hormonal cowboy would argue the administration's overblown warnings about Iraq have not altered and, in fact, further limited U.S. options against real foreign dangers. And therein lies, it seems to me, the irony behind the president's schoolyard taunt that political opponents would seek an international "permission slip" before acting again. Ironic, because that is the one course of action that Mr. Bush, more than anyone else, has helped to establish as the only course.
In the hope of building any kind of real coalition against a real threat, future presidents will likely feel constrained to present piles upon piles of evidence that would make the stuff against O.J. Simpson look shaky. America's depleted credibility will demand inordinate efforts to meet almost impossible thresholds of intelligence findings. Such a prerequisite to unified international action, which Bush has imposed through unprecedented recklessness, could someday prove to retard a well-advised U.S. response in accord with legitimate international law.
In these most perilous of times -- when we most need friends to help combat vicious global threats without first feeling compelled to vet our every word -- the president has complicated America's security. And that, Mr. Bush, is "the difference."
otherwise noted, all original