`Unusual' meeting leads to decision

Bush, advisers spend 3 1/2 hours at unscheduled gathering in Oval Office

War In Iraq

March 20, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush gave the order to go to war last night just before 7 p.m. Shortly after, he retired to the White House residence to have dinner with his wife, having made a decision that could cost American lives, define his presidency and change the United States' role in the world.

Bush's order came at the conclusion of an Oval Office meeting with military advisers that lasted more than 3 1/2 hours, far longer than usual for a president who is sometimes short on patience and prides himself on being short and to the point.

A senior administration official said that, when the meeting began, there was no final plan to launch strikes on Baghdad. But by the time the session was over, Bush had decided to take advice from advisers that the military should act fast. Within hours, allied planes were targeting a section of Baghdad, aiming for Saddam Hussein or some of his top lieutenants.

All the time, "there was always in place some flexibility in the plans," the senior official said, speaking to reporters at 11 last night. "And obviously, at this unusual third meeting today, [advisers] handed information to the president that he acted on."

The meeting was not on Bush's original schedule on a day that began early for the president, with a string of intelligence and military briefings. The day ended with a brief but momentous address from the Oval Office during which Americans learned the nation was at war.

Bush looked somewhat haggard in his address, his eyes blinking often as he spoke somberly and sought to display confidence. He told the nation that "we will accept no outcome but victory," but he also wanted to tell Americans there were many unknowns.

"A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California," Bush said, "could be longer and more difficult than some predict."

It was a decision, aides said, that Bush was entirely comfortable with. He is convinced that Hussein, if left in power, could pose a grave danger to the United States and friends by allowing his weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of terrorists.

But it is a decision fraught with enormous risk. The war that Bush began is opposed by many of his usual allies around the world, and by some Americans, who remain unconvinced that the president has justification to pre-emptively attack a sovereign country that has in no clear way provoked a military conflict.

In the morning, Bush spoke on the phone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally on Iraq. The political futures of both men may well ride on the outcome of the campaign that began last night.

The president also held a morning meeting with his top foreign policy advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, both of whom played prominent roles when Bush's father waged war against Iraq more than a decade ago. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, also attended.

The president, hoping to demonstrate to the country his concern for retaliatory terrorist attacks on the United States that could come as a result of the war, invited Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to the Oval Office, along with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose city is seen as a potential target.

"He is not going to be cowed or dissuaded," Bloomberg said after leaving Bush. "He is going to go out there and do what we all pray is right."

At 3:45 p.m., Bush convened the unscheduled meeting with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the president's military advisers, including Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and CIA Director George J. Tenet. The president, in the first three hours of the meeting, was convinced that the military had an opportunity to launch attacks on Baghdad that it could not let pass.

As soon as Bush gave the order, just before 7 p.m., the mood changed throughout the White House, where staff had already become suspicious of a meeting far longer than Bush typically tolerates.

The president left the meeting about 7:15, and met briefly with Michael Gerson, his chief speechwriter, to review his evening address. Bush was already familiar with words that were being drafted for days.

After dinner with first lady Laura Bush in the living room of the residence, Bush received a call from his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card, informing him that, according to intelligence reports, Hussein had defied Bush's 48-hour deadline to leave Iraq and that he remained in the country.

Bush took last looks at his speech. Then, at an hour that is usually close to his bedtime, returned to the West Wing, just after 9:30 p.m. The camera feed of Bush, sitting at his Oval Office desk, came on moments earlier than expected. Some journalists caught a glimpse of Bush, turning to someone in the room, his speech in front of him, and pumping his fist.

"I feel great," he said.

And at 10:15 p.m., he told the country he had taken it to war.

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