Bush should emulate Powell

February 14, 2003|By William J. Eaton

WASHINGTON - There's much to praise in the saying identified with President Theodore Roosevelt: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." Secretary of State Colin L. Powell gave a splendid illustration of the value of that approach in his documentary before the U.N. Security Council on Iraqi deception.

It's not clear how many minds were changed by Mr. Powell's presentation, finally bolstered by evidence gathered by the $30 billion U.S. intelligence community.

But his calm demeanor and even tone of voice contrasted sharply with the bellicose behavior of his boss, President Bush, and other high officials in the national security world. Their talk of preventive war, using the nuclear option and going it alone has turned off many in this country and abroad who usually follow the American lead on foreign policy.

But Mr. Powell gave the impression he was talking to reasonable grown-ups he tried to persuade and not intimidate.

It's not Mr. Bush's set speeches so much as his off-the-cuff remarks, delivered periodically, that set a bad tone. Anyone listening would infer that his view about Saddam Hussein is: "Give him a fair trial, then hang him."

Even in his State of the Union address, the president could not help smirking about the alleged terrorists who apparently have been assassinated by American agents abroad.

Three thousand terrorist suspects have been arrested, he said, adding that many others have met a different fate.

"Let's put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies," Mr. Bush said with bravado about these extrajudicial executions that are now obviously part of American doctrine.

Of course, assassinations may become a double-edged sword. If the United States can kill at will in the world, its opponents may do the same with the same display of nonchalance. Who then has the moral high ground?

It does make a difference how America presents its case against Iraq both at home and abroad. While war may be inevitable, there has been very strong opposition among Europeans and a great deal of unease among Americans who wonder if toppling the ruler of Baghdad is the right thing to do in the U.S. national interest.

What's more, the focus on Iraq's interference with inspectors and the political lineup in the U.N. Security Council has tended to obscure a larger question: After the war, what happens next?

In the best-case scenario for the United States and its allies, bombing and high-tech weapons would shorten the period of ground combat and limit casualties.

That could be only the beginning of an Excedrin headache, however. Who will govern a defeated Iraq? Is U.S. military rule a long-term option? How many billions have been promised to Turkey and other countries to support a U.S.-led invasion?

As one expert recalled recently, the United States sent troops into Bosnia in 1995, anticipating they could be withdrawn a year later. Here it is 2003 and there are still 1,800 American soldiers in Bosnia out of a total force of 12,000 to preserve a fragile peace.

What will be the fallout in the Middle East? Isn't it possible, if not probable, that U.S. military conquest of an Arab regime will lead to more terrorist acts against Americans in the region?

Will U.S. concentration on ruling Iraq distract the president and his administration from doing more to resolve the most difficult problem in the area: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Israel's economy has been shattered by the more than 2-year-old intifada and its counter-measures so that it soon will ask Washington for $12 billion in loan guarantees.

Despite the central nature of this issue to world peace, Mr. Bush devoted only a single paragraph of boilerplate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his State of the Union speech.

Meantime, while more ships, planes and foot soldiers are transported to the Persian Gulf to prepare for a possible war with Iraq, the president has sent Congress a weird budget with enormous tax cuts and record deficits. It may be the first time in history that an administration clearly headed for war has asked for lower taxes.

Luckily for Mr. Bush, this strange fiscal stew is too much even for Republicans on Capitol Hill, who already are planning how to cut back or ditch some of Mr. Bush's budget proposals.

As the nation girds for war, perhaps Mr. Bush would do well to let Colin Powell do more of the talking and learn to "speak softly" himself.

William J. Eaton is a veteran Washington correspondent who has won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

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