Nicholas Lemann, "The War on What? The White House and the Debate About Whom to Fight Next," The New Yorker, 9 September 2002


Just a few hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, President Bush made a brief appearance at Barksdale Air Force Base, in Louisiana. "Make no mistake," he said, "the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts." It was a clear, specific reaction to the attacks. Nine days later, when Bush came to the Capitol to give his first full speech about the attacks, before a joint session of Congress, he identified Al Qaeda as their perpetrator and laid out a detailed course of action: the United States would go after Al Qaeda all over the world; Al Qaeda's chief governmental protector, the Taliban, would have to coöperate fully, or it would be removed from power in Afghanistan. Then he added two memorable, but less specific, sentences: "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated."

The difference between retaliating against Al Qaeda and declaring war on terror is the difference between a response and a doctrine. Beginning with that first speech, Bush has steadily upped the doctrinal ante. The next time Bush addressed a joint session of Congress—when he delivered his State of the Union Message, in January—he said, "Our nation will continue to be steadfast and patient and persistent in the pursuit of two great objectives. First, we will shut down terrorist camps, disrupt terrorist plans, and bring terrorists to justice. And, second, we must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world." So now there was a second doctrine: Bush was broadening the United States' understanding of being at war, extending it from international terrorist organizations to governments that were not necessarily connected to Al Qaeda or involved in the September 11th attacks. In three less noticed speeches, at military universities—The Citadel, last December; Virginia Military Institute, in April; and West Point, in June—Bush has made it clear that the United States intends to remove from power more governments than just Afghanistan's. In the West Point speech, the most significant of the three, he said that the "Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment" are no longer sufficient for the United States, and that from now on "we must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge"—in other words, wage war on other states preventively.

All these formulations are important, but "war on terror" is the one that has caught on. It isn't just Bush who uses it constantly; the press and his Democratic opposition do, too. The phrase meets the basic test of Presidential rhetoric: it has entered the language so fully, and framed the way people think about how the United States is reacting to the September 11th attacks so completely, that the idea that declaring and waging war on terror was not the sole, inevitable, logical consequence of the attacks just isn't in circulation.

During the drafting of Bush's first speech, there was debate even within the Administration about the use of the word "war" (although since practically the first thing Bush said on hearing that a second plane had flown into the World Trade Center was "We're at war," it was probably beside the point). Presidents have been declaring metaphoric war on non-traditional enemies—that is, not sovereign states or alliances—at least since Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, in 1964. Doing so has clear advantages. It promises the public a dramatic effort to solve a terrible problem, while implicitly asking in return for the kind of support that politicians get only in extraordinary circumstances. But there are disadvantages, too. Traditional wars are fought by military means and have definite endings. Metaphoric wars don't. Terror, like poverty and inflation and drugs, will never sit at a desk and sign an unconditional surrender in front of television cameras. The public can tire of a war that lasts for years. The war metaphor can become a trap: a single successful terrorist attack on the United States, even a relatively minor one, would surely open up a discourse about having "lost" the war on terror. The Administration is aware of these difficulties—that's why Bush declared war on terror with caveats about the war's not being likely to have a neat conclusion and requiring great patience on the public's part, and why other officials, especially Attorney General John Ashcroft, have talked about future attacks as a virtual certainty. Still, over the past year the Administration has succeeded in convincing the country that it is notionally at war.

Although Bush qualified his initial declaration of war on terrorists with the phrase "of global reach," he was still, in effect, promising to wipe out not just Al Qaeda but every other jihad organization that operates across national borders. He was also inviting countries to ask—as Israel, Russia, India, and others have done—for more American help in their own struggles against violent political opposition that, because it attacks civilians, qualifies as terrorism. The commitment is enormous.

The second most resonant passage in that first Bush speech—"Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"—represents another daunting undertaking by the United States, because fitting "every nation, in every region" into the Procrustean bed of being "with us" and against "the terrorists" is more complicated than Bush made it sound. The most obvious example of a nation that sided with us against the terrorists, Pakistan, quite clearly continues to violate Bush's injunction that "from this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime," since Pakistan is the home base of terrorists who operate in Kashmir. The reason Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, doesn't adhere more strictly to the Bush doctrine is that if he did he'd be overthrown by Islamists, and then Pakistan would be much less "with us" than it is now. In recent months, Bush and other members of the Administration have begun talking about supporting democracy in the Middle East, and Musharraf, who took office in a coup and has altered Pakistan's constitution so as to make its elections as minimally significant as possible, is a reminder that, in many places, American policy is an imperfect fit with the situation on the ground. The standard that Bush has proposed for preventive military action against threatening regimes, if carried out literally, would represent yet another huge project, since perhaps a dozen governments that are not formal, reliable allies of the United States have some chemical- or biological-weapons capability. If one takes the President at his word, the United States has assumed, under the rubric of the war on terror, a new set of foreign-policy commitments that are much more ambitious, complicated, and difficult to realize than Bush's successful catchphrase would indicate.

For months after September 11th, there was no real debate about the war on terror. That's understandable—we've begun to forget how profoundly the terrorists terrorized us and how necessary cohesion felt after an attack that was beyond the imaginings not just of ordinary citizens but of even the leading experts on terrorism. What little dissent there was in those early days seemed as if it must have been ordered up by a covert wartime National Recovery Administration that had become concerned about the problem of underemployment among patriotic political commentators. Then, after the first of the year, leading Democrats—and only leading Democrats; the position of most Democratic congressional candidates today is one of unwavering support for the President—began to voice a carefully delimited critique of Bush's conduct of the war, and to propose a different way of conducting it. The critique varies from person to person, but it would be fair to call the vision underlying it something like "war on terror: the enhanced edition."

In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York, in February, Al Gore said that he no longer felt constrained, as he had in the fall and early winter, from criticizing Bush's conduct of the war. But he specifically endorsed the two main ideas Bush had put forth at that point: war on terror and American opposition to rogue regimes. His criticism was that Bush wasn't doing more to pursue these goals through liberal means like foreign aid and diplomacy.

Most of the other Democrats at the possible Presidential-candidate level have since given foreign-policy speeches touching on some of the same themes. They have said, variously, that Bush was acting unilaterally, was undercommitted to the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, wasn't adequately funding non-fundamentalist education efforts in the Middle East, wasn't adding enough new intelligence capability, and wasn't upgrading the Office of Homeland Security to the status of a Cabinet department (Bush has since adopted the Democratic position on that issue). Words like "commitment," "engagement," "involvement," and "coöperation" came up a lot in these speeches. Bill Clinton made a foreign-policy appearance in June, also under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations, at which he got closer to a workable slogan than the others had: he said that he supported a strategy of "more partners and fewer terrorists" (or, alternatively, "fewer enemies and more friends"), featuring worldwide health-and-education aid, foreign-debt relief, and more international peacekeeping efforts. Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, who has the best military combat credentials among the Democrats who are thinking about running for President, opened a second front at the beginning of the summer, by criticizing Bush as a Commander-in-Chief, especially for permitting the escape of top Al Qaeda leaders, including possibly Osama bin Laden, by relying on Afghan soldiers as proxy ground forces in the Battle of Tora Bora, in December.

Kerry's position was consistent with that of the other Democrats: they all want more of the war on terror, not less; in Kerry's case, more American troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Most of the leading figures in Washington, it seems, are avid participants in what might be called the Kennan Games: the winner will be the person who has most successfully used September 11th as the basis for a new American grand strategy as durable and memorable as the one George Kennan proposed in 1946—containment of the Soviet bloc. The Democrats do disagree internally about Bush's idea of the United States' replacing regimes, particularly Iraq. But they agree about declaring war on terror and about using September 11th as the occasion to try to extend America's overwhelming power even further. One Administration foreign-policy official told me, a little smugly but not without justice, that the foreign-policy debate inside the Bush Administration is a lot more interesting and impassioned than the debate outside it.

The official was talking about the struggle between the Administration's hawks and moderates—a struggle that the press usually describes as an argument between Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense (the hawk), and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State (the moderate). The description is accurate as far as it goes, but the hawks, who believe that the United States should remain the world's sole great power for many decades and that force, rather than international coöperation, is the best means to that end, are nested in places other than the Pentagon. Vice-President Cheney is a hawk who spends much more time with Bush than Rumsfeld does, and there are important hawks who are one or two levels down on Cheney's staff, on the National Security Council staff, and even at the State Department (chiefly John R. Bolton, the Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security), as well as at Defense.

One reason the hawks are so interesting is that they seem to break all the rules and get away with it. The foreign-policy world prides itself on maintaining a bipartisan consensus, so being outside the consensus should, theoretically, rob you of influence. But the hawks have defied the consensus for thirty years, ever since they turned against détente with the Soviet Union during the Nixon Administration, and today they have more influence than ever. President Bush is supposed to insist on absolute personal loyalty and on keeping all debate strictly internal, but the hawks plainly have goals other than just Bush's reëlection; they announce or leak positions in advance of Bush (Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, declared less than a week after September 11th that the United States would be "ending states who sponsor terrorism"), and their circle includes people who misbehaved during the 2000 campaign, like William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, who was a John McCain supporter. Washington's attitude toward the hawks seems to be official disapproval tinged with sneaking admiration. They have an incaution that usually makes holding office impossible, and yet they have gained high-ranking jobs and kept them. Their operational persistence and their intellectual boldness give them disproportionate influence—the origins of just about all of Bush's doctrinal statements over the last year clearly can be traced to the hawks.

A good place to find the mainstream Democratic counter-argument to the hawks is a book published in March called "The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone," by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and someone who might well have turned up in a high-ranking foreign-policy job in a Gore Administration. Nye acknowledges that the United States is supremely powerful right now, but he says that it is a temporary condition to be taken advantage of, and not something that can become permanent. We should pursue "soft power," a complex web of alliances and aid agreements that bind the rest of the world to our interests and give us a more benign reputation abroad. Another person who would almost certainly be shaping American foreign policy in a Gore Administration, Richard Holbrooke, the former United Nations Ambassador, argued, when I spoke with him recently, that the hawks around Bush fundamentally misunderstand the role being played by the international organizations that the United States helped create after the Second World War. "The entire system was created by statesmen like Roosevelt, Truman, and Acheson to bind other countries to our interests—to prevent rogue states," Holbrooke said. "True, some international organizations got taken over, like UNESCO. But on the whole the international system was much more favorable to us than to others. Remember that Bush's father was Ambassador to the U.N. He understands this."

During the Clinton Administration, Joseph Nye was an Assistant Secretary of Defense. After he returned to Harvard, he became a member, along with hawks like Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, of an advisory group called the Defense Policy Board, whose members are briefed periodically at the Pentagon. When the Bush Administration came into office, Perle was made the board's chairman, Nye and other Democratic members were not reappointed, and the board became Hawk Central. I went to see Nye not long ago, and he said, "There's more difference between the traditionalists and the hawks in the Administration than between the traditionalists and the Democrats, especially on the question of to what extent we should pay attention to the views of others."

The contrast between the Democrats' faith in international treaties and organizations and the hawks' mistrust of them couldn't be more deep-seated; it reflects fundamentally different views of human nature. Do you get people to behave the way you'd like them to through power and force, or by encouragement and friendship? The hawks would say, Clearly the former, especially in the Arab world. They see the tough, threatening messages that Bush has been sending to other governments, through his rhetoric and through his refusal to participate in international organizations, as having already paid off in the form of increased influence for the United States. A lot of the conversation in foreign-policy circles is about articles in small-circulation periodicals. The article that prompted the most buzz this summer was an essay in Policy Review, a conservative publication affiliated with the Hoover Institution, called "Power and Weakness," by Robert Kagan, another prominent hawk. Kagan is currently enduring one of the cruellest fates that can be visited on one of his kind: because of his wife's job, he lives in Brussels, in the bosom of the "international community." Kagan says, with good-humored condescension, that of course the Europeans believe in international law and multilateralism. Who can blame them? Weak nations, lacking the resources and the will to maintain military power, always have.

To the extent that the supremely confident hawks take seriously anyone who disagrees with them, it wouldn't be the multilateralists, whom they regard as sentimental and naïve, but old-fashioned foreign-policy realists, people who think of themselves as being hardheaded enough to conduct their discussion of American foreign policy on the ground of practical matters like national interest and balance of power. Moral campaigns to remake the world don't cut it with the realists. To them it's the hawks who are sentimental and naïve, and also dangerously incautious, because they overestimate the extent to which the United States can impose its will abroad without suffering unforeseen consequences. For the past year, the realists have been the dog that hasn't barked. (There is a left-wing argument against the war on terror, which proceeds from a suspicion of American power; it counts as a loudly barking dog because commentators who object to it have given it so much publicity.) The realists are practically reverential toward American power, but, unlike just about everybody in Washington—Administration hawks and moderates, Democrats and Republicans in Congress—they don't think there should be a war on terror.

Over the summer, foreign-policy elder statesmen like Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Zbigniew Brzezinski got a lot of attention for publicly expressing realist doubts about the prospective American invasion of Iraq, and Vice-President Cheney responded with a speech making the case for war, but the broader realist argument about the war on terror has been absent from the national discussion. I went to see some of the leading realists recently, with the idea of giving their opinions a public airing. The people I interviewed are well-known figures in international relations, professors at major universities—John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago; Stephen Van Evera and Barry Posen, of M.I.T.; and Stephen Walt, of Harvard—but they reported that they haven't been seriously in touch with anybody in government over the past year. Evidently, their point of view isn't being considered in Washington.

The consensus among the realists is that the United States should have declared war on Al Qaeda, not on terrorism. If it had, then all foreign-policy projects would be evaluated on the basis of how well they served the worldwide struggle against Al Qaeda. The realists are minimalists. They often say things like "do less" and "reduce the American footprint." Using the September 11th attacks as the occasion to remake America's role in the world is exactly what they don't want. They revere tough-minded diplomacy and suspect military adventurism—another of their favorite formulations is that it's better to display the velvet glove than the mailed fist. In the nineteen-nineties, they opposed United States military involvement in the Balkans, and today they oppose the idea of invading Iraq and of seeking "regime change" in other countries. The hawks believe that anti-Americanism springs from pure irrational hatred and can best be dealt with through shows of force; the realists believe anti-Americanism varies with the extent of visible, bellicose American behavior, and that is why they want to reduce the footprint.

"I think the Al Qaeda threat is very serious," Stephen Van Evera told me. We were a long, long way from the corridors of power—sitting on a park bench in Lexington, Massachusetts. "We used to believe there was no such thing as Al Qaeda"—a terrorist organization capable of inflicting mass casualties. "They're very skillful. They combine high patience and training capacity and motivation. I was very shocked by 9/11. We're in a struggle to the death with these people. They'd bring in nuclear weapons here, if they could. I think this could be the highest threat to our national security ever: a non-deterrable enemy that may acquire weapons of mass destruction."

He went on, "Defining it as a broad war on terror was a tremendous mistake. It should have been a war on Al Qaeda. Don't take your eye off the ball. Subordinate every other policy to it, including the policies toward Russia, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Iraq. Instead, the Administration defined it as a broad war on terror, including groups that have never taken a swing at the United States and never will. It leads to a loss of focus. Al Qaeda escapes through the cracks. And you make enemies of the people you need against Al Qaeda. There are large risks in a war against Iraq. There could be a lengthy, televised public slaughter of Muslims by Americans. A wide imperial rampage through the Middle East—what do you do after you win? We're not out of Bosnia and Kosovo yet, and Iraq is much bigger. It's a huge occupation and reconstruction. We aren't good at this."

The realists agreed wholeheartedly with the Administration's decision to use American military forces to remove the Taliban government in Afghanistan from power, because the Taliban was harboring Al Qaeda, our attacker. And they agreed that the campaign against the Taliban was a big success. But they were not particularly sanguine about American progress against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. "When I put together the evidence, it's not going very well," Van Evera said. "We've nailed eight of the top twenty-five Al Qaeda leaders. We need to roll up the entire leadership. They're still capable of launching attacks. They've attempted about a dozen since 9/11."

Barry Posen, Van Evera's colleague at M.I.T., who specializes in military analysis, maintained that the mop-up campaign in Afghanistan had been severely hampered by American unwillingness to use ground forces, because of fear of casualties and because current American military doctrine overstresses the benefits of air power. "It looks like we missed a number of opportunities," he said, "and the reason was that we didn't want to take risks. Tora Bora was a disaster, universally acknowledged as such, and never explained. The idea that casualty aversion could play a role here— it's extraordinary. If that's true, something's really wrong. The American people would have paid hundreds of dead to get the Al Qaeda leaders. Or it was pure incompetence—using drones and a bunch of mercenaries and bombs in a cordon operation. We couldn't have done a worse job. We should have put in every Ranger in range. There's no excuse. This is very weird. Then they have this second chance, Operation Anaconda"—the American effort to encircle Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Shah-i-Kot valley, in eastern Afghanistan, last March. "My sense is, it was the toughest of the Al Qaeda hard cases, very good and gutsy. The commander"—Major General Franklin Hagenbeck—"didn't know what he was doing. He didn't send enough forces. He didn't take enough artillery. And there was too much reliance on the Afghans. And, it's clear, they were kerfuffled afterward. They went to the Brits for more troops"—England flew in seventeen hundred marines as reinforcements—"and the commander was relieved," by Lieutenant General Dan McNeill. "They knew something was wrong. Opportunity No. 2 was missed. My guess is, most of them got away. So this is disturbing—a war on terror that doesn't focus on the terrorists."

From now on, the realists say, the pursuit of Al Qaeda will be an intelligence and police operation, not a military one: the big problem isn't that of physically conquering the dozens of cells from which terrorist operations are launched; it's locating them. The continuing use of American military power—especially on not strictly related projects, like invading Iraq—will do more harm than good, by alienating governments whose coöperation America will need in eliminating Al Qaeda cells on their soil, and by creating the kind of instability in the region that has in the past provided Al Qaeda with its best opportunities to establish bases of operations. "Military power is not necessary to wiping out Al Qaeda," Stephen Walt said. "It's a crude instrument, and it almost always has effects you can't anticipate. We're seeing that now. We didn't get Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. We're killing civilians. We're killing friendly forces. This is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of people around the world. When your village just got levelled by an American mistake, the conclusions you draw will be rather different from what we'd want them to be."

He went on, "Americans do not yet perceive a cost to having a freewheeling foreign policy. We stayed in the Persian Gulf for ten years, and lost fewer than three hundred people. We knocked off the Taliban in a few weeks. But imagine going into Iraq. If things go badly, we end up there for a long time. There's a point where the costs start adding up. It will generate higher and higher levels of resentment. Empires start generating a lot of resentment. I'd leave Saddam right where he is. Keep him bottled up. Wait for him to die. What do we do if we're successful? How many coups were there in Iraq between 1958 and 1968? It's a country riven with internal divisions. That's why the Bush people didn't go to Baghdad in 1991. Iran is much more powerful and important than Iraq—how do Iranians react? I have limited confidence in our ability to run countries we don't understand. Why, in the middle of pursuing Al Qaeda, would you decide, 'Oh, let's take a big country and invade it and create a giant political mess there!' We've seen people attempting this in the Middle East before, and it hasn't worked. You never know how these operations will go. History is not on the side of the advocates here."

Al Qaeda was obviously helped by Afghanistan's descent into warlordism following the withdrawal of Soviet forces (and of American support for the opposition to them), in 1989. After September 11th, "failed states" looked like a pressing threat to American national security, because they provide terrorists with territory. The realists would therefore put far above the threat to the United States posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons programs the threat posed by instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan—countries whose pro-American Presidents, Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf, respectively, are behaving like men who believe that their lives are increasingly in danger, and whose remote areas provide haven for Al Qaeda members. Saddam may be trying to develop nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has nuclear weapons already, and its military and intelligence services are full of Al Qaeda sympathizers. "We may lose Pakistan," John Mearsheimer told me, "and that would be a huge blow, because Al Qaeda would be able to operate in Pakistan, and it could get its hands on nuclear weapons. It's clear that Musharraf is in a precarious position. In Afghanistan, Karzai is in much less control than Musharraf. Pakistan is a coherent state. Afghanistan is not. There's no Army, it's run by warlords. It's almost impossible to maintain order." To the realists, the precariousness of the region is another reason not to invade Iraq: quite often, when war comes to one country it destabilizes the governments of neighboring countries. (The Administration recently announced that Al Qaeda is now also operating across Iraq's eastern border, in Iran.) And if, after an invasion of Iraq, some parts of that country are no longer controlled by Saddam Hussein but are not controlled by the United States either, Al Qaeda would have another place where it could establish itself.

The realists, along with many other foreign-policy experts who aren't necessarily in their camp on all issues, are also worried that Al Qaeda might get its hands on fissile material, or even nuclear weapons, that may be available in the southeastern regions of the old Soviet empire. In 1991, two of the United States Senate's foreign-policy eminences—Sam Nunn, of Georgia, and Richard Lugar, of Indiana—wrote and passed legislation that provided American funding for the safe storage and destruction of the old Soviet nuclear weapons in Russia and three former Soviet republics. Last December, Nunn (now an ex-senator) and Lugar went to the White House to pitch the idea of extending the program, in light of the threat from Al Qaeda, to other countries in the region. The officials they met with, a high-level group including Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, and Vice-President Cheney, who participated by videoconference from the secure location where he spent much of the fall, seemed interested. But the Administration wound up adopting only a small version of the idea, and in the spring it suspended funding for the Nunn-Lugar program. This was taken to be another sign of the influence of the hawks and of their suspicion of international agreements, especially in the area of arms reduction.

The realists all noted that thus far in the war on terror President Bush's speeches have been bold but his actions have been cautious. While steadily laying out a case for something close to a world war, he has stationed fewer than ten thousand American troops in Afghanistan (many fewer than President Clinton stationed in the Balkans) and has deployed them sparingly in combat. He did not achieve the one policy change that would probably be most helpful in promoting American interests in Pakistan—a substantial lifting of the barriers on imports of Pakistani textiles, which would have made the United States look like the midwife of prosperity there—because of opposition from domestic textile manufacturers. He has not yet succeeded in creating a Department of Homeland Security. He has not imposed on the public the usual wartime tax increases and military call-ups.

Bush is a prudent politician. As governor of Texas, he almost always chose adept compromise over confrontation, even though he had been elected and reëlected with healthy majorities. He is certainly aware that (if you judge by election results, not polls) he has been much less popular as a national politician than as a local one—that's why he spends so much time visiting states that were close in the 2000 election, and offering them policy sweeteners like steel-import tariffs. Since 2000, the Republicans have lost governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey. Bush has a thin majority in the House of Representatives. He lost his majority in the Senate when he came out of the gate as a strong conservative. With the sole exception of his big early tax cut, legislatively he has either met the Democrats partway (as in his education bill) or been unable to pass his program (as in his energy bill). The Bushes may seem like a dynasty, but a glance at the electoral won-lost records of the President and his kin—former President Bush, and Governor Jeb Bush, of Florida—demonstrates that they're not politically invincible in the way that Ronald Reagan or the Kennedy brothers were. It is difficult to imagine that the President feels supremely confident about being reëlected. So he would appear to have neither the inclination nor the means to put through a daring new foreign-policy program.

But the war on terrorism and the ideas associated with it strike a very deep chord in Bush, aside from whatever political advantages they may offer. During the campaign, when Bush promised to restore honor and dignity to the Presidency, he really meant it—and he meant more by it than just forswearing hanky-panky in the Oval Office. Republicans, and particularly Bush, seem to have a view of Clinton and Gore that goes something like this: O.K., those guys may be more intellectually agile than we are, but we're tougher, more disciplined, more mature. We understand how precious the prestige of the United States is, and we won't squander it in loose talk and half-cocked action. The September 11th attacks gave Bush a chance to display what, to his mind, would be his competitive advantage over his predecessor and his chief rival; all the comments by his aides about how he had found his destiny were in effect admissions both of the extent of Bush's ambition and of a feeling that conditions before September 11th hadn't been propitious for a display of his strengths.

The realists are right when they say that Bush's talk and his actions have been out of synch. The President and his people may be praying that their sabre rattling will bring about a coup or a revolution in Iraq that will obviate the need for an invasion. That Bush so far has said more than he's done doesn't necessarily mean, however, that the really consequential decisions following from September 11th still lie before him. It's important to Bush to be a man of his word—that's the essence of his non-Clintonism. He has rhetorically committed the Presidency to a series of ideas that in turn commit the United States to a course of action. It seems as if the big decisions have already been made.


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