Bully boy

September 17, 2002

PRESIDENT BUSH put on a remarkable display last week of the best and worst sides of his nature. The determined leader who made a thoughtful, eloquent appeal Thursday to the United Nations for global action against Iraq was transformed Friday into the neighborhood bully. He not only belittled the U.N., but taunted Democrats who want to give the world body time to act before Congress votes -- all but calling them sissies.

These shoot-from-the-hip displays of pique have become familiar. In the right context, they sometimes reflect the views of many Americans. But to speak in such a manner on this subject at this time -- and to inject, as Mr. Bush did, election-year politics into the equation -- severely undermines his credibility at a time when he needs it more than ever.

To some degree the U.N. debate is a sideshow. The president has yet to make a convincing case at home that the risk of taking military action against Saddam Hussein would be smaller than the risk of failing to act, even alone if necessary.

Lawmakers in both parties are pleading for information that would justify the certain loss of American lives in combat and the prospect of igniting a tinder box that could inflame the entire Middle East and beyond.

They want to know how close Mr. Hussein is to unleashing chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons against the United States. But the Bush administration won't say, and probably can't. Intelligence briefers sent to Congress impart so little information that some lawmakers boycott them as a waste of time.

The White House says Congress can't be trusted with sensitive information for fear of leaks. But that's nonsense. Senators and House members are elected to represent the interests of their constituents. They must be given as much information as possible to make a decision. A nation cannot be asked to go to war on the recommendation of a handful of White House insiders.

The likelihood is that there isn't much hard information to go on about Mr. Hussein's arsenal because weapons inspectors haven't been inside Iraq for nearly four years. Mr. Hussein now says he'll let U.N. inspectors in, but if that proves to be an empty gesture, the best the Bush administration can do is make logical assumptions.

A persuasive case for pre-emptive action can perhaps yet be made if the president deals with Congress straightforwardly and keeps the debate on a high plane.

Skeptics must be forgiven for musing about the administration's motives in demanding a vote on a war resolution shortly before congressional elections when Mr. Bush warns wary Democrats to consider what voters will think of them.

The administration says it wants congressional support to bolster its case with the U.N. But that's another form of wagging the dog. Congress must act on its own timetable.

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