Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2002/ 12 Shevat, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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On second thought,
he's not so bad | Almost overnight, George W. Bush's aura as the invincible man is beginning to wilt, shrouded in a fog of rationalization, retrenchment and retreat.

The smart money may be on Saddam Hussein surviving, after all.

Showing no wounds from the rhetoric relentlessly lobbed at him over the past year from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and 10 Downing St., Saddam appears on the brink of success in working a monumental bluff on the West. The tantrums in North Korea are about to be rewarded. Al Qaeda is regrouping in the wild border regions of Pakistan. The no-nonsense campaigner against racial quotas, the man who refused to pander to race scammers, on "quiet consideration" can't even make up his mind about whether to file the brief, already prepared, to support a landmark case against racial discrimination at the University of Michigan.

The United Nations arms inspectors effectively gave up yesterday, insisting they would need at least a year to complete their investigation in Iraq. If he needs more time to hide whatever he's got, Saddam was told yesterday he could probably get it. "We need to take a few months," Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in Paris. "How long it takes depends on the cooperation of Iraq." (This is called in other places "a blank check.")

Ari Fleischer, the president's press spokesman, couldn't have said it better, though he tried. "The president thinks it remains important for the inspectors to do their job and have time to do their job," he said. "The president has not put an exact timetable on it."

This is not exactly how the president, or his various mouthpieces, have talked in the very recent past. But that was before the president walked into the quagmire called the United Nations, which is designed to swallow initiative, resolve and the good intentions of the unwary. This of course delights the Europeans, who long ago perfected appeasement as national policy, and this time there's no Maggie Thatcher to warn the president, as she warned a previous President Bush on the eve of Desert Storm in 1991, not to "go wobbly on us, George."

In London, Tony Blair, only yesterday the unflappable ally carrying a stick bigger than he was, began a coordinated Big Backdown of his own. "Let the inspectors do their task," he said. "I don't think there is any point putting an arbitrary date on it."

Maybe not. Maybe the doves have been right all along, that Iraq is no bigger threat than Haiti or Bhutan. Maybe Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are only a delusion of hype and hot air. But that's not how either the president or the prime minister were talking only a few weeks ago, when George W. was warning the United Nations to grow up or become irrelevant, and Tony Blair was talking as tough as any sandbox soldier at Miss Adelaide's Academy for Tots and Tykes.

Halfway around the world, George W.'s envoy to South Korea is making promises to Kim Jong-il, offering new goodies if the North Koreans will promise again to behave themselves. If they just say they'll behave, they can do whatever they like. It's how the world deals with North Korea.

The White House insists that the concessions to Pyongyang that Mr. Kelly is talking about are not really concessions. They're still working on finding a word to call them, which will make us all feel better. Bill Clinton, who resolved a similar dispute by trading concessions for empty promises a decade ago, turns out to be the unlikely author of the new White House strategy.

Iraq and the war on terrorism is, after all, growing a little stale. Dealing with the economy looks more interesting and certainly more important. The sagging economy George W. inherited is his own now. Bringing the troops home, after marching them up the hill with flags flying and bands playing, will be humiliating, but only for a week or two if he can get the mills humming again. Maybe nobody will remember Iraq and al Qaeda and Saddam and Kim Jong-il.

But even with his own man running things, the Senate will not be the pushover the White House could imagine it was only a fortnight ago. Some of the senators who voted for his $1.6 trillion tax cut two years ago are making unhappy noises this time. "It's a different environment," Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democratic ally two years ago, told his constituents in Nebraska over the weekend. "The president has thrown out the first pitch, but you know, I'm not sure it's a strike at this point."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a partisan Republican who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has a similar word of caution. Trimming the income-tax rate for the richest Americans from 38.6 percent to 35 percent, he says, may be the hardest provision to get through the Senate.

It's the difference a month can make. The hero of September 11, the straight-talking Texan who has shown no patience with dorky Democrats, irrational Iraqis, fru-fru Frenchmen, ungrateful Germans, misanthropic Muslims, kinky Koreans and segregationist Southerners begins to look like a stranger.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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