Hawks on the Hill

December 6
, 2001

As he struggles to win one war, President Bush’s own party looks determined to start another. When he spoke of “impatience here in Washington” during his Barbara Walters sit-down last night, doubtless the President was thinking of the bloody letter just dropped on his doorstep. Signed by a congressional Who’s Who, it commands the Commander in the starkest of terms to widen his war: “Directly confront Saddam, sooner rather than later.”

Once the pipe dream of neo-con pundits, bombing Baghdad just won Capitol Hill’s designer imprint.

For the Weekly Standard, “the right war” resides in Iraq. For National Review, the “endgame comes to Saddam.” For the Wall Street Journal, storming Baghdad “sustains our momentum.” Now Congress joins the war chorus. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott. House International Relations Committee Chair Henry Hyde. Top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms. Ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Shelby. Sens. John McCain and Joseph Lieberman. All agree “It is imperative that we plan to eliminate the threat from Iraq.”

In the wake of Sept. 11, those long galled by Saddam’s staying power sought to make of the tragedy cause to complete “unfinished business.” But their best evidence amounted to a single meeting between one of the hijackers and an Iraqi official - insufficient to drive us back to Desert Storm. The back-up plan to tie Saddam to anthrax also fell flat, so absent a current motive, past enmity seems to suffice. Wrote National Review editor Rich Lowry, “Firm evidence should be unnecessary for the U.S. to act. It doesn’t take careful detective work to know that Saddam Hussein is a perpetual enemy of the United States.” Jesse Helms agrees. “ The war on terrorism cannot and will not end until Saddam Hussein suffers the same fate as the Taliban,” declares the President’s pen pal.

Thus the battle lines are drawn before the battle. On one side, those convinced that if we don’t simultaneously - in the gentle parlance of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz - “end” state sponsors of terror, al Qaeda’s finest will simply seek alternate haven. The dissent counters that declaring war across the Middle East will shatter our coalition and send the U.S. sprawling solo into al Qaeda’s version of our intent: an assault on Islam writ large.

President Bush bestrides the gulf. He’s served notice that Iraq must admit weapons inspectors - a move congressional hawks boxed with a joint resolution stating failure to fall in line will constitute "an act of aggression against the United States and its allies." But he’s left the penalty for noncompliance in the murky realm of or else. He maintains that “we’re keeping all options on the table,” but is laying no strategic groundwork for a massive campaign against multiple countries. His father and Secretary of State both oppose wider war. The pressure to feel the pain of a constricting economy weighs in on the side of coming home rather than marching on. But the opposing view is gathering strength and Mr. Bush must soon choose sides.

Runs the old Welsh hymn, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.” For George W. Bush, this is that moment. To avenge or to empire? The camp he joins will mark his Presidency - and forever affect the history of the country he leads.

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