Trusting Bush's `instincts'

October 09, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Although the die apparently is cast for Congress to give President Bush authority to use whatever means he chooses to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, debate in the Senate goes on over the wisdom of that action.

This locking of the barn door after the horse has been stolen is the result of effective White House pressures on compliant congressional Republicans and a Democratic leadership more concerned with avoiding political damage in the November elections than about the extension of presidential power.

With House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt having thrown in with the president on a modestly modified war resolution -- which requires only that Mr. Bush say diplomacy has failed before launching military action -- Senate holdouts are content with making a record of their opposition.

It has fallen to the wavering voice of the Senate's senior Democrat and president pro tem, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, to raise all the questions in more timorous Democratic minds about the scope and timing of the resolution that could put Americans in combat, presumably early next year.

Mr. Byrd, the recognized constitutional expert of the Senate, has challenged the right of the president to make war on his own and the rationale for pushing through the authorization only weeks before the congressional elections, giving Mr. Bush a blank check instead of taking the matter to the voters.

In advance of the president's speech to the nation Monday night, Mr. Byrd asked questions about the threat from Iraq, the timing, the cost in dollars and lives, and the purpose of military action without U.N. cooperation, if need be. He asked whether the purpose would be to disarm Saddam Hussein or remove him. He asked about the impact on the war on terrorism and Mr. Bush's plan for postwar Iraq. The president's speech Monday night provided little to satisfy these basic questions.

In the Senate debate, another senior member, Republican Robert Bennett of Utah, offered an interesting defense of Mr. Bush against those who question his qualifications to make such a weighty decision.

"Every presidential decision," Mr. Bennett said, "is so loaded down with unknowable consequences, with unforeseen possibilities and unforeseeable challenges, that no presidential decision is made on the basis of intellect. It's made on the basis of instinct."

No matter how many brilliant minds a president assembles around him to determine the best course to take, Mr. Bennett said, in the end a president's key decisions are made "on instinct out of the gut, rather than intellect out of the analysis."

He told of Harry Truman's instant decision, when told of North Korean forces suddenly crossing into South Korea, to stop them. When Mr. Bush's decision comes on what to do regarding Iraq, Mr. Bennett said, "it will be made not in George Bush's head. ... The ultimate decision will be made in the president's gut."

This reassurance no doubt will assuage the concerns of those who have been spinning their wheels on the Senate floor arguing that pre-emptive war against Iraq is the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place for a nation already occupied with a war on terrorism.

Further reassurance from Mr. Bennett came in a reminder of the administration's new long-range "security strategy" of pre-emptive action against future Iraqs, with the president again deciding on his own why, where and when to use American superpower force to nip perceived threats in the bud.

Mr. Bennett said he was supporting the administration's resolution "because I trust George W. Bush's instinct." The president might "use it by mistake" on occasion, he allowed, but in the long run it would serve him, and the country, well.

Another old presidential loyalist, Jack Valenti, famously once said, "I sleep better at night knowing Lyndon Johnson is my president." That apparently is the sort of blind trust that supported the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and gave LBJ the blank check that financed the expansion of the Vietnam War, and that is expected of us now, on the brink of this latest military adventure.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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