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Bush Lets It All Ride on His War

March 23, 2003|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a CNN political analyst.

WASHINGTON — This is Bush's war.

That's not a statement of contempt. In 1999, congressional Republicans did express a certain contempt when they called the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo "Clinton's war." Meaning, it's his war. It's not our war.

But to call the campaign in Iraq "Bush's war" is a statement of political fact. President Bush has made this war his personal cause. He has staked his entire presidency on it.

A triumph in Iraq will be his triumph. It will give him the political capital to do anything he wants -- dividend tax cuts, Medicare reform, anything. Bush will stand astride the world like a colossus. Just as his father once did.

But this President Bush understands, as his father did not, that political capital is a fungible commodity. It has to be invested in a big agenda. The father had no interest in big agendas. He was the "kinder, gentler" president. He lacked "the vision thing."

No one can say this Bush is not bold. Last fall, he did what few presidents do in midterm elections. He took a calculated risk by making himself the central issue in the campaign. It could have ended badly, in which case the election would have damaged Bush's political standing. But it didn't. And the president saw his stature immensely enhanced.

The 2002 campaign was a trifling wager compared with Iraq. This is Texas political poker, the ultimate high-stakes gamble. Bush has everything riding on it -- his reelection, his legacy, his party's future. Not to mention the life and death of hundreds of thousands of combatants, the future of the Middle East and America's role in the world.

Make no mistake about it: This President Bush is a big-agenda man. His agenda is nothing less than remaking the world.

It is impossible to make any political predictions without first knowing what's going to happen in Iraq. Nothing about Bush's economic program. Nothing about his judicial appointments. Not even the 2004 Democratic nomination. Well, maybe one prediction: If Saddam Hussein is still in power next year, there is no way Bush can get reelected, short of the Democrats nominating Al Sharpton.

It's Bush vs. Hussein. Only one of them can come out alive. Politically, at least.

To claim victory, the administration will have to show proof of two things. First, that Hussein is out of power -- that he has been eliminated or is under U.S. control. The administration's goal is not justice. It's regime change. Second, there really are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But even if Hussein is ousted and weapons of mass destruction are unearthed, any number of things could go wrong.

Massive war casualties. Israeli involvement, causing the Middle East to erupt in flames. Chaos in Iraq. A difficult and costly American occupation. Popular revolts that bring down pro-American regimes in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Egypt. Terrorist reprisals against the U.S. homeland. Guerrilla attacks on American occupation forces. Gasoline rationing and skyrocketing energy prices. If any of those things happens, the political consequences for Bush will be devastating.

This war is the toughest and riskiest decision any president has made since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Which leads to the obvious question: Why is Bush doing it?

The necessity of war with Iraq -- at least, war now -- is not obvious to most of the world. Or to many Americans.

People outside the U.S. have reached a harsh conclusion: This is a war for oil. Isn't Iraq believed to have the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world? Aren't Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney oil men? Doesn't the oil industry contribute huge sums to the Republican Party?

Steve Kretzmann of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington puts it this way: "If McDonald's, the world's largest consumer of potatoes, announces in advance that it's going to buy Idaho, and that the purchase has nothing to do with potatoes, what would you think?"

The slogan of the antiwar movement, from Austin to Australia, is "No Blood for Oil." Last November, a reporter asked Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, "Mr. Secretary, what do you say to people who think this is about oil?"

Rumsfeld gave a typically dismissive answer: "Nonsense.... It has nothing to do with oil. Literally, nothing to do with oil."

How can that be? "If it were about oil, it would be the simplest problem in the world to solve," Jim Placke of Cambridge Energy Research Associates said. "The Iraqis would cut a deal instantly, a deal that would be very financially attractive."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz recently said, "If the United States had wanted access to Iraqi oil, we could have dropped our whole policy 12 years ago, lifted the sanctions and let Saddam Hussein have his weapons of mass destruction."

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