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May 6, 2004


Dad was right


On Feb. 24, 1991, after six weeks of intense bombardment from the air, directed at targets inside Iraq and at Iraqi positions in Kuwait, President Bush ordered a ground attack aimed at driving Saddam Hussein from the country he had invaded the previous August. Four days later, with Iraqi forces either decimated or in full retreat, the president found himself at a Rubicon. The path to Baghdad lay open, the prospect of smashing Hussein's brutal regime once and for all was within easy reach. All the president had to do was give the word.

Though thin-skinned like his son, the first President Bush had a quality the current occupant of the White House lacks: Cool detachment. While that may have reduced his popular appeal, in this crisis it served him well, for it enabled him to ask a key question: Sure, I can beat Saddam, but what am I going to do then? He had told his countrymen that the purpose of the war was to push Hussein out of Kuwait, and he wasn't about to change that purpose now. His many years of experience -- as president, as Ronald Reagan's vice-president, as head of the Central Intelligence Agency -- all told him that Iraq was a trap. He ordered a cease-fire, and just like that, the Gulf War was history.

On Sept. 12, 2001, with the World Trade Center towers reduced to smoking rubble, with the Pentagon damaged, with a field in Pittsburgh scarred by airplane and body parts, the second President Bush saw in the catastrophe an opportunity. Though all the signs pointed toward Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network as the culprits, the president, we now know, asked his advisers a question: Was Saddam Hussein involved?

The question must have seemed wildly off-base. Saddam, after all, was a secular ruler while Osama bin Laden was an Islamic fundamentalist. They had nothing in common besides a hatred of the United States, and were likely indifferent to one another if not outright enemies. Moreover, they didn't need each other: Bin Laden's focus was international terrorism, Hussein's, since his failed Kuwaiti adventure, was domestic repression.

But the question makes sense if you believe that one of the reasons -- perhaps the main reason -- George W. Bush sought the White House was to restore family honor by doing what he thought his dad should have done in 1991: Bring Hussein down. He would soon learn -- he may have been told as soon as he asked the question -- that it was extremely unlikely Hussein was involved. But it probably didn't take him long to realize that that didn't matter much. The shock of Sept. 11 had so changed the domestic political landscape that the hurdle he needed to clear to get the American people behind taking Saddam's regime out was relatively low. All he needed was an excuse. He would soon find one in weapons of mass destruction.

That they have yet to be found hasn't hurt Bush much -- Saddam was a villain whether he had WMDs or not. But the American people like to back a winner, and that's why support for the president on Iraq is finally beginning to slip. The very thing that Sept. 11 banished, the very thing that stayed his father's hand in February 1991 -- the specter of another Vietnam -- is now returning as the situation in Iraq deteriorates. The somber sight of soldiers' flag-draped coffins, televised images of terrorized civilians, even a My Lai of sorts in the recent revelations about abuse of Iraqi POWs -- they all threaten to undo the war's justification.

Things may turn around. Or things may get worse. But even if the situation in Iraq improves, even if this country recovers from the damage done to its moral authority abroad, there's the gut-level sense that somehow, some way, a price is going to be paid on American soil -- either through another terrorist attack, or perhaps a terrorist-backed assassination attempt.

Of course, we were hated in the Middle East long before George W. Bush became president. But it's becoming harder to make the case that his unprovoked invasion of Iraq and the bloody insurgency it has spawned have made the American people safer. And it's becoming clearer that Bush didn't give a lot of thought to the invasion's aftermath. He was too intent on fixing Dad's screw-up for that.




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