What Bush vs. Saddam Is All About

While neocons created a policy that posited a safer world without the dictator, many wonder if George W. was more bent on revenge

A failure of intelligence? At this point, Bush's expressions of shock, shock! at the absence of any weapons of mass destruction being discovered in Iraq are about as credible as the French inspector's surprise in Casablanca that gambling was going on in Rick's Place. Weeks before David Kay expressed doubts that biological or nuclear weapons stockpiles will ever be found in Iraq, a Time/CNN poll already found more voters (48%) thought Bush had plans to take out Saddam Hussein before the September 11 terrorist attacks than not (44%). Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's assertions that the Administration talked about an invasion from Day One of the Bush Presidency caused a fuss in Washington, but people in the hinterlands just nodded their heads.

As the perception of being misled sinks in among Americans, however, Bush faces his own gathering threat: A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 54% of Americans now believe the President either lied about or deliberately exaggerated the evidence of WMDs to justify the war.

Why would he do that? I'd argue that beyond the all-but-discredited rationale that Saddam harbored secret weapons stockpiles, two other war scenarios can be argued. One has been talked about endlessly in official Washington, but the other you'll hear only in private -- in America's living rooms.

Let democracy bloom in the sand.

Before getting to what I think is really happening here, let's quickly recap the first line of reasoning. Back when Bill Clinton was President, the neoconservatives had already started the drumbeat: The U.S. under the leadership of Bush's father had pushed Saddam out of Kuwait but left him in power to breed his evil mischief. Iraq, the region, and the world would all be better places without him, the neocons said.

With their man in the White House after the September 11 terrorist attacks, they expanded their rationale for invading Iraq: The blooming of a stable, moderate democracy in the desert, nurtured by U.S. occupation, could serve as a base for anti-terrorist operations while showing the way to peace and prosperity to millions of angry, frustrated Arabs -- and reducing the number of potential recruits for Osama bin Laden.

It remains a grand vision -- appealing to many (including me) as legitimate grounds for national security policy post-September 11. Too bad the preparation, vision, and follow-through that those in charge of the policy have put into it have been so tragically inadequate, something even the President has now acknowledged. All this is remarkable, in light of the risks Bush took in invading Iraq, pushing the U.N. aside and adopting a doctrine of preemption.

And it's all the more intriguing that Vice-President Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- stewards of the notion that Saddam had huge stockpiles of WMDs and was a gathering menace -- were also stewards of the notion that the old Soviet Union posed a far graver nuclear threat to the U.S. than was revealed after the communist state collapsed, not by war, but by being pushed into bankruptcy for trying to keep pace with the U.S. in military outlays.

Now there's American genius -- chalk one up for The Gipper. If Bush really is surprised as he says he is about not finding WMDs in Iraq, he should replace his running mate in 2004 -- and his national security team in 2005, if he's reelected.

"I am George Bush. You tried to kill my father. Prepare to die."

Sound familiar? It's based on a famous line from The Princess Bride, a gently fractured fairy tale of a movie from 1987, and I'd argue that it gets to the heart of why many Americans think George W. Bush went to war in Iraq. The Princess Bride features an accomplished swordsman named Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin. Montoya's life mission is to track down the evildoer of a lord who killed his dad. He practices over and over the exact words he'll say when he finally confronts the villain: "I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Any son recognizes the emotional power of a monstrous person's efforts to exact injury and insult upon his father. I've been hearing Inigo Montoya's words over and over ever since Bush was elected to office. And I've heard many ordinary Nascar Dads say nearly the same thing. "Well, what did Saddam expect? He tried to kill Bush's father." From Shakespeare to the Godfather movies, the power of the father-son relationship has formed the motivational backdrop of powerful human drama.

The knowledge that this "tyrant" and "madman," as George W. repeatedly called Saddam, sent assassins to try to kill Bush Sr. while on a visit to Kuwait in 1993 had to be powerfully galling to the son. Imagine: His father had just been defeated by Bill Clinton for reelection, yet Saddam remained in power. Even Clinton -- who lost his own father at an early age -- did what he had to do: He launched air strikes on Baghdad in retaliation for the assassination attempt.

Anyone who knows the Bush family (I covered the first Bush White House for BusinessWeek) knows the value it puts on fealty, service to country, and a code of honor. And to lots of folks, what Bush Jr. has done looks understandable -- though hardly justifiable -- on this purely personal level.

Perception is everything.

Of course, this President and his Administration would deny it, and you won't see the revenge motivation debated in public forums, as Congress and the Administration assemble a "commission" to explore why intelligence in Iraq was so wrong. So, this scenario can't be "proved" in the official Washington sense. A perception is all it is.

In politics, however, perception is everything. And this is the elephant, not just in America's living room but in Karl Rove's office at the White House. I think most Americans can empathize if Bush's desire was to avenge Saddam's attempt to take out his dad. And I'd argue that's why so many voters still see Bush as a likeable person and a decisive leader -- not the dumb warmonger that his haters like to depict.

Still, recent polls show that a lot of jaw-tensing is going on right now in the country. You have to wonder: Is this really a President who turned centuries of international law on its head, who misled Americans with justifications for invasion that have turned out to be spectacularly false, sent other sons and daughters into a war that continues to kill one or two of them every day, has concocted half-baked plans for rebuilding a land torn asunder, and plunged the U.S. budget into an ocean of red ink so he could figuratively stare into Saddam's eyes and say, "You tried to kill my father. Prepare to die."

Bush has some explaining to do if he is to be reelected.

Douglas Harbrecht

Edited by Beth Belton

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