Houston -- GEORGE Bush always told us he would come out fighting at the Republican National Convention, but he never said against whom. It turns out his confrontation may be with his old poll-booster, Saddam Hussein.
If Iraq's dictator decides to deny America's president a televised fireworks display in Baghdad, Saddam would conduct a shell game with documents, allowing U.N. inspections of sanitized ministry buildings. By backing down, he would make Mr. Bush appear a strong leader.
If Saddam chooses to take a prime-time bombing, he would help the Bush campaign even more. The president would reap the benefit of a long-delayed surgical strike, all the while insisting the United Nations made him do it and any imputation of political motive is absurd, cynical or unpatriotic. This is Mr. Bush's "turnip day" session; like Harry Truman, he wins either way. A sitting president is never a sitting duck.
How can the voter determine if the president's convention-week ultimatum is primarily a stunt to hype his ratings or, as Bush heatedly asserts, a strategic move necessary to undertake now?
Merely to threaten military action to force access to inspection, or merely to drop bombs to punish defiance, would be a stunt. We cannot again fail to achieve the goal of removing Saddam and ending the Baathist threat to the region.
Proof of seriousness requires a comprehensive plan to implant democracy in the area. If Saddam chooses defiance, the first step is to bomb his helicopter gunship and tank forces, correcting Norman Schwarzkopf's admitted "snookering."
Next, provide Kurdish forces in northern Iraq the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons they need for self-protection from Saddam's Republican Guard. Extend our air-cover guarantee to Iraqi Shiites in the south.
Meanwhile, persuade Turkey to join with us in recognizing and supplying food and ammunition to the democratically elected government of Iraqi Kurdistan, in return for its curbing Kurdish agitation within Turkey. Support Kurdistan's recapture of its capital of Kirkuk, the oil-rich Kurdish area now occupied by Saddam's troops, thereby making a new Kurdish state viable.
That would "dismember" Iraq, a prospect that so horrified the Bush administration until the scared Saudis decided recently it would be a good idea. But when Kurdish leaders finally were permitted an audience with Secretary Baker, they were told to shut up about independence.
If Scowcroft-Eagleburger geopoliticians, still behind history's power curve, insist on playing the old balance-of-power games between Baghdad and Tehran, Bush could try Plan B: recognize and protect the provisional government of a federated Iraq now located in Kurdish territory, fomenting and arming its overthrow of Saddam's Baathists.
That's being serious about preventing nuclear aggression in the Persian Gulf. It calls for a fundamental change in policy, not a spasm of poll-boosting violence.
Change of diplomatic policy demands a change of policy makers; does Mr. Bush offer that change?
So far, the signal he sends is no. By neglecting to appoint a new secretary of state to fill the post vacated by Mr. Baker -- our first taxpayer-paid campaign manager -- President Bush is clearly saying that the Baker seat will be kept warm awaiting his return. That augurs a continuance of a foreign policy that reveres the status quo and misses the march of history by failing to intervene anywhere on behalf of human rights.
This week in Houston, Mr. Bush has a chance to send a wholly different message. He could appoint Carla Hills secretary of state, with Jack Kemp replacing her as trade negotiator, or come up with some other daring combination to demonstrate how a re-elected Bush would seize opportunities to advance democracy.
Right-wingers like me -- domestic libertarians, global interventionists, neocons, lifelong freedom-mongers in the habit of loyally pulling down the lever under the Republican eagle -- need strong reasons to stick with the national ticket this year.
We won't be bribed by deficit increases, or fooled by vision transplants, or moved by nostalgia for Ronald Reagan's first term, or panicked by the prospect of Democrats in Lincoln's bed, or wowed by a halfway-measure military ultimatum.
William Safire is a New York Times columnist.