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Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2002 / 18 Tishrei, 5763

Bill Schneider

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The politically loaded question: "Why now?'' | One big question hangs over President Bush's Iraq policy: why now? Why, nearly twelve years after the Gulf War, is it suddenly so urgent for the U.S. to go after Saddam Hussein now?

Unless people see a new threat or provocation, many are left to conclude that President Bush's Iraq offensive is being driven by politics. Here's what Vice President Dick Cheney had to say about that idea when he was interviewed on NBC News "Meet the Press'': "The suggestion that I find reprehensible is the notion that somehow we saved this and now we've sprung it on [Congress] for political reasons.''

Nevertheless, people in very high places are wondering whether political forces may be driving the U.S. to act unilaterally. Like, for instance, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said just before President Bush addressed the General Assembly on September 12, "For any one state, large or small, choosing to follow or reject the multilateral path must not be a simply matter of political convenience.''

What's the political convenience? Former White House political strategist Dick Morris spelled it out in a recent column in the New York Post: "Polls show that only one issue works in Bush's favor: terrorism.'' Does Morris think the President is "wagging to dog'' to divert attention from other issues? "He doesn't need to wag the dog,'' Morris wrote. "He just needs to talk about wagging it to make the impact to keep control of Congress.''

Even the White House has hinted at a political strategy, as long ago as last January when current White House political strategist Karl Rove told the Republican National Committee, "We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military and thereby protecting America.''

Why did the Administration wait until September to make its case against Iraq? White House chief of staff Andrew Card told The New York Times, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.'' Sounds like an "Iraq roll-out'' strategy.

In his speech to the United Nations, President Bush tried to shut down the political speculation. He insisted there is a new threat. "Sould Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year,'' the President warned.

But if the threat is truly imminent, why doesn't the U.S. act immediately? Why wait for the UN and Congress? For one thing, the evidence is not that clear cut. "They haven't proviced the evidence [Iraq] has that capability,'' House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi commented after the President's UN speech. To those who want more evidence, the White House response is, we can't afford to wait for a smoking gun to turn up. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,'' national security adviser Condoleeza Rice warned. Critics insist that a UN resolution is essential, even before Congress takes action.

"Why in the world would the President of the United States or this country want to do this alone?'' Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) asked. "This is an issue of the United Nations against Iraq, not the United States against Iraq.'' The answer came from Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who demanded of Congress, "Are we going to wait for [the UN] to take action before we show that we agree with our own Administration?''

Many Democrats have been urging a postponement of the Iraq vote in Congress until after the midterm election. One of them is Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who said, "I think it would be a much more thoughtful and constructive and nonpartisan debate if it takes place after the election.'' To which Sen. Lott replied, "I do think the Democratic leadership looks a little funny on this issue when, after saying, `We must be on board, we must be informed, we must have a debate, we must vote,' now that it looks like we may be asked to vote, it's, `Oh, oh, oh, oh, we didn't mean now.' Well, when?''

Much of the discomfort in Congress and in the country has to do with the fact that this is a pre-emptive strike -- a policy that seems out of line with the American tradition. The Administration's argument is that the U.S. can't sit around and wait for the other side to commit an atrocity. The U.S. made that mistake before. On September 11, 2001.

Remember the argument a few weeks ago over whether the Administration failed to "connect the dots'' before the attackers struck? Sen. Lott alluded to it when he said this September 11, "I don't want us to be in a position weeks or months from now where we say, `How come you didn't connect the dots? What did you know and when did you know it?' We know plenty right now.''

The politically loaded question "Why now?'' comes with the new doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. Whenever a President threatens a pre-emptive strike, people will ask, "Why now? Could the President be doing this for political reasons?''

To those who smell politics in this case, the Administration has a ready response to throw them on the defensive. "Sure, a crisis over Iraq may benefit the President politically. So what? There's no reason why an issue of this magnitude should not be the focus of a political campaign. What's wrong with that?''

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© 2002, William Schneider