ANALYSIS: Bush's calculated pursuit of validation has its costs

After claims of not needing support to attack Iraq, the President is now strongly pursuing it on many fronts. Douglas Quenqua ponders the PR push's efficacy and ramifications.

After claims of not needing support to attack Iraq, the President is now strongly pursuing it on many fronts. Douglas Quenqua ponders the PR push's efficacy and ramifications.

If nothing else, the Bush administration has succeeded in making "Should we attack Iraq?" the most-considered political question in the US today. "How do we punish corporate criminals?" "How do we balance civil liberties with national security?" "Where is Osama bin Laden?" "What about the economy?" Please. You may as well be asking "Justin or Kelly?" It's all just so August, thanks to the 24-hour anti-Saddam bullhorn that is the pre-election White House. It's a curious thing, all this talk and persuasion, when you consider how much of it is focused on Bush's apparent willingness to go it alone. He has in the past few months expressed his willingness to remove Saddam Hussein with or without approval of the UN, Congress, the Arab world, or, presumably, the American people. And Bush is spending a lot of time trying to convince the world that his plan to attack Iraq - with or without their support - deserves their approval. The efforts are many and varied, involving appeals from the top, the middle, and the outside. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon have been consulting with a team of private-sector PR pros to hone their appeals, even though no one seems quite sure whom those appeals are aimed at just yet. The State Department, ironically led by the only senior member of the administration preaching patience, has been media-training a handful of prominent Iraqi dissidents who will serve as third-party spokespeople for the cause. The interagency Iraqi Public Diplomacy Group is reportedly planning its own campaign to bring the media worldwide evidence of Hussein's crimes. All the President's men (and women) have been investing a lot of time in making the case as well. Vice President Dick Cheney used two rare public appearances last month to argue for an attack, using more forceful language than anyone in the administration thus far. And Bush has very publicly agreed to discuss his intentions with Congress and the United Nations, though few doubt that their permission remains a formality in his mind. Two weekends ago, the Sunday talk shows were inundated with members of Bush's war cabinet, all giving the same line: Hussein is a threat that needs to be removed, and Bush has held private conversations with every head of state willing to take the call. A matter of timing But why now? Bush announced his intention to take down Saddam way back in January. Why is the White House only now revving its PR and diplomacy engines? Weber Shandwick Worldwide chairman Jack Leslie, who has served sporadically as a public diplomacy consultant for the government since September 11, 2001, says that's the way it was intended from the beginning. "The White House didn't think they could get the attention they wanted to get in August, which is traditionally a terrible time to get anyone's attention, especially Congress, which is not in session," he reasons, stating that the plan all along was to get the PR ball rolling around Labor Day, which is precisely what happened. "What they can do is make this a major issue at the close of this session of Congress. And better this than a lot of domestic issues that could be at the forefront. Not to suggest that this is all [a diversion], but surely they would rather have a debate around Iraq than other issues." Other issues being the still-unknown whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, the still-unpunished executives from Enron and WorldCom, and the still-slumping economy, none of which is the sort of thing this President wants voters thinking about when they enter the booths in November. The timing is right on the international scene as well. Last week, Bush outlined his argument for regime change in Iraq in front of the UN, a move seen by many as conciliatory, given his prior reluctance to recognize that institution's right to interfere with US war plans at all. But what if he'd been planning to make this presentation all along? What if this supposed reluctance was just a way to add drama to the eventual presentation. As Leslie points out, the timing is perfect. Immediately after Labor Day is the time heads of state all gather in New York for a meeting of the General Assembly. A calculated appeal No one would begrudge the administration its right to wage a campaign to whoop up support for a military action it deemed necessary. But if Bush and company had been planning to go this route for so long, why spend so much time assuring Congress, the UN, and the world in general that they don't need their help? Could it be so that when the time came, they'd gain points for compromising? Sort of like raising prices on everything in the store by 100% just before your half-price sale? It's a question only the administration can answer and, not surprisingly, it's not eager to do so. But Leslie can see why the appeals are being made to the public now, however legal it may be for the Bush team to invade on its own. "At the end of the day, while legally they may feel the need to do it on their own, practically speaking they're far better off doing it with a strong sentiment from Congress, which is supportive because that gives them the political will," he says. "And I think that they're sharp enough to know that as many allies as they can gather in the Middle East, the better and stronger the effort will be." Arab allies are indeed pivotal to the effort. Any invasion of Iraq will require friendly bases in the region, and Arab-Western relations are strained enough as is. So naturally a little PR between cultures isn't a bad thing, regardless of whether an attack is imminent. Unfortunately, Bush's intended invasion is not being at all well-received in that world, or anywhere outside of the US for that matter. If anything, it's giving the various strains of anti-American sentiment floating around out there a single, substantive issue which they can glom on to. Shortly after the White House began pushing the issue, the Arab League produced a document signed by the foreign ministers of 20 Arab countries pledging their support for Iraq against America, with one representative telling The Washington Post that a US attack would "open the gates of hell." And Bush's many conversations with European leaders over the past weeks have yielded nothing but warnings and angry reluctance, save from British Prime Minister Tony Blair. So one has to wonder, if this effort is largely about keeping American voters thinking about Saddam instead of Skilling, is it accomplishing its goal at the expense of America's credibility abroad? Is an administration that has invested so much in overseas diplomacy in the past year sacrificing what progress has been made in order to ensure a favorable election outcome? There are a surprising number of people walking around Washington subscribing to that idea, and the irony should escape no one. By exhausting his international credibility in order to keep Republicans in office, Bush may well secure himself another four years as President. But he's merely giving his people the Gift of the Magi, as he will have sacrificed his greatest worth to us in order to get there.

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