WASHINGTON — In an otherwise relaxed interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw on Jan. 16, President Bush seemed to stiffen a little when Mr. Brokaw asked whether Iraq was "on the screen" as a possible new front in the war against terrorism.
"On the screen," Mr. Bush said. "But, see, I don't feel the impatience that some might feel. I really don't."
Riding high in the approval ratings as wartime leader, trying to focus attention on his budget and domestic agenda, Mr. Bush still faces the vexing question of Act II in the anti-terror war. If Iraq keeps coming up in that connection, it is partially because he has directed attention to Iraq.
The administration believes that Saddam Hussein has been working on weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological weapons. On Nov. 26, responding to reporters' questions in the Rose Garden, Bush said that President Hussein "needs to" allow the return of United Nations inspectors, expelled three years ago.
Asked what the consequences would be if Hussein refused, Bush responded, "That's up for.... He'll find out."
Secretary of State Colin Powell punctuated the implied threat by saying that Hussein would be well advised to heed this "very sober, chilling message."
The Iraqi government promptly defied the "arrogant and unilateral demand" and said it had no intention of admitting weapons inspectors. And, there - for more than two months - the matter has stood with no visible sign of any "consequences."
In congressional testimony last year, Paul Wolfowitz said, "The heart of the problem is that the United States is unable or unwilling to pursue a serious policy in Iraq." Mr. Wolfowitz was then the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He was talking about the Clinton administration. Wolfowitz is now deputy secretary of Defense.
In his criticism of the Clinton administration for lack of a coherent policy, he was joined by Richard Armitage, who is now deputy secretary of State.
It is common knowledge that President Bush's advisers are divided on the subject of armed intervention in Iraq, alone or in support of an opposition movement. But the appearance of a president making an empty threat can be embarrassing and damaging to American leadership.
For that reason, and much though he would like to put the issue on hold, Bush may soon have to figure out some "consequences" for Hussein.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.