Why Bush's war threats have extra gravitas
His foreign policy style, marked by decisiveness, prompts a more serious respect for US power.
WASHINGTON — Washington types like to play a parlor game that might be called "What If?" Here's one round: What if Bill Clinton had still been president on Sept. 11?
The former chief executive himself has almost complained that he led the nation in dull times, deprived of an opportunity for greatness. Indeed, says presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton University, there would be great similarity between Presidents Clinton and Bush - or almost-President Al Gore and Bush - in the immediate handling of a 9/11-magnitude event. "There's a kind of DNA for presidents in crisis," Professor Greenstein says. "You rally the nation; you don't sit down and let the nation be blasted."
But in the longer-term fallout of Sept. 11, Bush has carved out an approach to war and terrorism marked by discipline, simplicity, and directness - and none of Mr. Clinton's reluctance to put American troops in danger. The result, on one level, is an Arab and Muslim world that now takes American power seriously and, so far, is producing results in Iraq.
The president's response to North Korea's move toward resuming its nuclear-weapons program has also been typically bold. The administration has been forcing its allies in the region to pursue a diplomatic solution to the situation. The president has refused to negotiate with North Korea until they halt their nuclear program.
Bush's unequivocal style in foreign policy matters, to be sure, could also lead the US into a war with Iraq that could have dire consequences. Already, his approach is contributing to growing anti-Americanism in Arab countries. But in erasing some of the post-Vietnam reluctance to use force, he has also created a less ambiguous, even if largely unsympathetic, view of the US in Arab capitals.
"While Bill Clinton was not taken seriously by leaders in the world of Islam, George W. Bush is taken very seriously, and his words - unequivocally - are seen as quite decisive," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East scholar at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., who travels frequently to the region.
During Clinton's presidency, the military saw him as a draft dodger who harmed morale with his effort to allow gays to serve. Retaliation by cruise missile - not "boots on the ground," as Bush likes to refer to deployment - was a typical response to anti-American actions, such as the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the alleged Iraqi plot to kill the first President Bush. (Middle East leaders now see that second episode as giving the current President Bush all the more reason to go after Saddam Hussein. And Bush the younger's avoidance of active duty during Vietnam appears to be a nonfactor in his relations with the military today.)
The war in Afghanistan has altered the image of "America as wimp." Even though bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar remain at large, "the US unleashed a devastating war in Afghanistan, toppled the regime, decimated the military infrastructure of Al Qaeda, and installed a friendly government," notes Professor Gerges. "People are saying, 'Iraq is the second phase.' This is why President Bush is taken seriously. They believe he'll do the same in Iraq."
Beyond actions, Bush's persona and verbal style also seem to translate to his advantage in the Middle East. By all accounts, including reporter Bob Woodward's new book "Bush at War," the president does not appear prone to indecision. He does not preside over endless meetings, like some past presidents. Rather, he listens to his options, then decides - more on gut instinct than on any pretension of expertise.
To Bush's critics, his good-versus-evil rhetoric oversimplifies the situation. Even his wife reportedly objected to the swaggering tone of his "wanted, dead or alive" edicts on bin Laden. But by speaking boldly, Bush is sure to be heard.
Even when Bush aims for nuance - such as when he reaches out to Muslims by visiting mosques and refutes statements by US religious-right leaders who disparage Islam - the message can be drowned out by his dominant mantra of force, say Gerges and other Mideast experts.
In the US, there's no doubt that Bush's simple message plays well, even if polls show that most Americans don't want the US to go it alone in a war with Iraq, and want UN approval of an invasion.
"His Manichean, black-and-white, view of the world is very serviceable for a politician, because by putting himself on the side of moral good, that's where most of the country will be," says presidential historian Robert Dallek.
So far in Iraq, Bush has won the return of weapons inspectors and a 12,000 page declaration that purports to lay out the Iraqi weapons programs. It's forced President Hussein to launch a charm offensive to deter possible war.
Yet some observers say that the president's 'good-versus-evil' approach to the Iraq situation has probably contributed to a growing hatred of the US in Muslim countries. The road from here, for Bush, is paved with potential pitfalls. How will Bush decide when and if to go to war with Iraq, especially if there's no obvious trigger? If a war with Iraq goes badly, his persona of competent decisiveness in foreign policy could evaporate.
But in war politics, Bill Clinton seems to know as well as anyone that salesmanship can matter more than policy. In a speech this month, he implored Democrats twice to remember that "when people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right."
Clinton contradicted Bush's emphasis on Iraq, calling Al Qaeda a greater threat to US security. But he didn't fault Bush for an ability to project strength.