Foreign policy on the fall runway
WASHINGTON — The march to war can be said to have started a year ago Wednesday with a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Mr. Cheney asserted that the threat of Iraqi unconventional weapons made "the risks of inaction greater than the risks of action."
The idea of military action to depose the regime of Saddam Hussein had been stirring in the so-called Wolfowitz wing of the Republican Party since the first Bush administration. But the Cheney speech sounded like a trumpet call.
In public nothing much happened immediately. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
A year later, with Iraq conquered but not subdued, President Bush contemplates his product line for a fall season that heads toward next year's election.
More Americans troops have been killed since the war officially ended than during the "major" hostilities, and Iraq appears to be becoming a rallying point for Islamic militants throughout the region. Speaking to the American Legion in St. Louis Tuesday, the president appeared to preview his fall policy model by calling for patience and lumping Iraq in with Afghanistan and Gaza as a generalized terrorist threat exemplified by the 9/11 attack.
The administration appears to be bent on keeping troop strength from becoming a political issue. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the veterans, "It would be a mistake to conclude that more troops are needed in Iraq."
It remains to be seen whether and how long Americans will respond to appeals for patience. On the one hand the administration faces demands, some from Republicans, that American forces in Iraq be strengthened to deal with the guerrilla threat.
On the other hand, if American casualties continue at the current rate, there is likely to be a rising demand, reminiscent of the Vietnam War, to pull out of the quagmire and refer the problem to NATO or the United Nations.
There are already signs that the administration is concerned about a demand to pull out, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the veterans in St. Louis, "We must remain patient. When Americans begin a noble cause, we finish it."
From Lebanon to Somalia that appears to be a questionable assertion. But, never mind.
This is apparently just test marketing for policy positions to be introduced after Labor Day when the president faces an increasingly skeptical public in the preelection season.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.