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So Which Story Is It?

September 19, 2003

President Bush's declaration Wednesday that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties but that there was "no evidence" he was linked to 9/11 had an Alice-in-Wonderland quality. Only a few days earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney on national television had expanded the administration's claims, hinting darkly that Hussein's security forces might have been involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and that Iraq was at "the heart of the base" of the terrorist threat that culminated in Sept. 11.

Who is the public supposed to believe, Bush or Cheney? In delivering a different message depending on what day of the week it is, the administration is shredding whatever remains of its credibility on Iraq.

On Thursday, Hans Blix, the former United Nations weapons inspector who has patiently watched as the United States and Britain fruitlessly search for weapons they said Blix was too incompetent to discover, finally decried "the culture of spin, the culture of hyping." Both Blix and his successor at the U.N., Demetrius Perricos, say Hussein probably destroyed any weapons of mass destruction a decade ago.

The administration's flip-flops aren't trivial, but rather are symptomatic of wider disarray. At a moment when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is trying to win the cooperation of wary allies for a U.N. resolution that will internationalize the occupation and bring in foreign troops and money, Cheney went out of his way to antagonize Europeans. Cheney made an impassioned case Wednesday at the Air Force Assn.'s annual convention for an America goes-it-alone policy -- preemptive strikes abroad whenever and wherever Bush sees fit. The unspoken premise is that the U.S. doesn't need the U.N. or other countries to help rebuild invaded countries.

With Iraq in danger of meltdown, however, it's clear that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon have failed to properly plan for the postwar period. Bush not only needs Europe on board, he also must listen to Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), who are urging the White House to shift control of Iraq's reconstruction from the Pentagon to the State Department.

In April, Congress went on record stating that it wanted Powell, not Rumsfeld, to oversee reconstruction. It backed down after lobbying by Cheney but shouldn't make the same mistake again. It seems clear that civilian employees would be less apt to anger Iraqis. Moreover, U.S. aid workers have far more experience in nation-building than the military. Instead of giving the administration carte blanche with the additional $87 billion it has requested for Iraq, Congress should insist that the State Department take the lead.

Better yet, Bush could make clear his full and total support of the internationalization of the reconstruction in Iraq when he addresses the U.N. on Tuesday. It's the first step toward restoring the administration's credibility.

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