IGNORING THE NOISY STREET

Believing that the risk of leaving Saddam in power is the greater of evils, Bush is determined to press ahead

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN March 3 2003

IGNORING THE NOISY STREET

Believing that the risk of leaving Saddam in power is the greater of evils, Bush is determined to press ahead

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN March 3 2003

IGNORING THE NOISY STREET

Believing that the risk of leaving Saddam in power is the greater of evils, Bush is determined to press ahead

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

THE UNITED NATIONS isn’t quite sure. Some of the United States’ closest friends are uneasy. Last week, two new Democrats entered the 2004 presidential race with expressions of doubt. And in London, Rome, Athens, Toronto and elsewhere the protestors made their point: George W. Bush may be ready, willing and eager to go to war—but many others are not.

No matter. The President and his advisers, distracted by new terrorism alerts and a mid-winter storm that closed down Washington, brushed aside the worldwide protests like so many irritating flakes of snow. The mobilization in the Middle East goes on, the strategy sessions in the Pentagon continue, the drumbeat to war is pounded every day. Bush went so far as to argue that he would no sooner be swayed by protests in the streets than he would by a voter focus group.

That reflects two impulses hard-wired into Bush. The first is to pay little mind to protests; he has said many times that his collegiate idyll at Yale was undisturbed by the fiery demonstrations breaking out on the Connecticut campus, and across the nation, in the Vietnam years. The second is to see himself as the steely defender of American securityno matter the threat, no matter the cost, no matter the opposition.

Even so, the extent, size and passion of the protests unsettled many Americans, who themselves aren’t fully persuaded that an American-led invasion of Iraq is necessary, prudent, or warranted. “We still don’t know whether Saddam Hussein is an immediate danger to the United States and if we will be safer if we go ahead and attack Iraq,” says

Cynthia Shannon, a teacher in Gates Mills, Ohio, just outside Cleveland. “When I hear that these protests are anti-American, I laugh. Some Americans feel this way, too.”

Many do. Public opinion polls show that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s effort to lay out the evidence against Saddam Hussein persuaded a majority of Americans of the value if not the virtue of U.S. policy. But a substantial number—perhaps a third—harbour doubts. Large majorities believe the U.S. needs to win global support before launching an attack: according to a study by the Pew Research Center, many more Americans believe that the war will be lengthy than was the case a dozen years ago, before the first Gulf War began.

Most Washington insiders believe there are a few more twists in the diplomatic road before Bush & Co. give the final order committing American troops to combat in the desert expanses and, worse still, the cities of Iraq. The Bush administration has spent too much time analyzing the “Arab street” since Sept. 11, 2001, to ignore the European and Canadian street or even the Australian street. That’s why Bush’s remarks dismissing the protests had the air of someone who, well, protests too much.

In truth, Bush knows he can go to war anytime he likes, but that his own position would be strengthened if he could quell the doubts at home and in the streets abroad. Even if the President has reached his own verdict—and there is every reason to believe he has—White House officials took the protests of February to be symbols of just how much the rest of the world jury needs to be convinced of the American case.

“The American public reaches its judgments in foreign policy very quickly and the public decided after 9/11 it would support

retaliatory measures—as long as there were allies along with us, support of the United Nations and support of Congress,” says Maxine Isaacs, who teaches a course on foreign policy, the news and public opinion at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The protests notwithstanding, the Bush administration feels it has most of that.”

Team Bush still has some explaining to do, however; look for the President to step up his anti-Iraq rhetoric, but with an eye toward explaining, rather than exhorting. And though the element of surprise is important in matters military, Bush almost certainly cannot embark on hostilities without a major speech to the American people— and, of course, to the world—setting forward one more time his rationale for war.

But the protestors who descended upon the streets of five continents this month may not be able to say they weren’t heard, no matter what Bush says. It is entirely possible that the anti-war chants will accelerate Bush’s drive to war, not stall it. The American administration, fully confident of its prospects against Iraq’s army and air force, believes it will be judged on its military victory once war comes, not on its diplomatic gavotte on the way to war. The irony of the mid-winter protests may be that they persuade Bush to move quickly—before the anti-war movement gets even stronger. I?]

David M. Shribman

a Pulitzer Prize winner

and long-time Washington correspondent, is a frequent contributor to Maclean's.