War Games

Rummy and GWB standing tall at the ranch.Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

War, or not?

Will we or won’t we? Yes? No?

We’re just waiting for GWB (or proxy) to make up his mind. Choice supersedes events. Or choice is the event. It’s like standing by for the judgment of the court. Or for an interest-rate move by the Fed. Go? No go?

This very on-tenterhooks quality and sudden-death aspect, not to mention the managed framework (it’s not going to happen without plenty of lead time), make it an ideal media event. We will be able to see it in real time, the demarcation between no action and action. The real drama is in the decision (the war itself is just the mopping-up). Hence there is, as the president observed, a media “churning,” or, as Secretary Rumsfeld corrected him, “a frenzy.” A surging-forward to catch the exact moment when something happens – when he decides.

Will he, on the basis of a sleepless night or an argument with his wife (they must argue) or, more likely, with Secretary Powell, say, “Damn it, I’m fit to be tied; let’s regime-change [growl]”? Or will he have a good night’s sleep (what is the air-conditioning like on the ranch? Central? Bedroom unit?) and, rested, suddenly be certain about the merits of option 1 (intense infrastructure bombardment and limited forces) or option 2 (massive buildup and overwhelming strike) or option 3 (proxy forces)? It’s George Bush we’re focused on here – his mood, his level of annoyance, his pent-upness quotient. Will he blow or keep cool?

If he blows, how will the moment be expressed? How will the flipping of the switch or the pushing of the button be rendered? What’s the staging?

Or will the pressures mount from other quarters, slowly but inexorably diverting him from his aggressive inclination? That would be an interesting development, too – a television-movie outcome. Working up to a pitch of hysteria, then backing down. Reversal. Relief. (How many opinion pieces does it take to prevent a war? What if they gave a war and only op-ed columnists came?)

Along with the question of what will happen, there is, too, the other motor of suspense: When? The wait is a key plot element.

Clearly, the suspense here is being handled in a pretty masterly fashion. The payoff (even though, in fact, we assume we know what’s coming) will be a surprising and satisfying one. One day, any day, a friend will call you and say: “We’re attacking Iraq. Turn on CNN.” Ending the tension means we’ll begin the war with a good feeling – the attack as a release.

And then there’s the countdown to the November election – when the fate of the House and Senate will be decided. If there is no attack before a shift of power in Congress, there may not be the wherewithal afterward to mount an attack. That obviously increases the probability that there will be an attack before Election Day, which, of course, would in turn increase the probability that in the first heady flush of war, power in the Congress will stay with (and in the Senate even shift back to) the party making war. Very edge-of-the-seat.

It is possible, although doubtful, that we will never have the war – just the war story. All this could just be a time-honored tale of saber rattling. It might even be – though we don’t often credit the administration with this kind of subtlety – that the president through the media can induce many of the effects of war without anyone’s having to wage a war. GWB could be a very cunning cat.

Still, all this belaboring – one might even say procrastinating (the possibility of war with Iraq has been in play for the better part of a year now) – would seem to be counterintuitive. The president is bound to look indecisive (imagine what would have been said about Bill Clinton if he had weighed a decision for a year). What’s more, it provides an opportunity for everybody else to vent. The Democrats, after all, will do anything to avoid an October surprise – they are panicky and plaintive. The generals will do almost anything to avoid getting blamed for war, including leaking anything that is not nailed down. And the rest of the world, as Cheney or Rummy has likely said, can be counted on to get its panties in a twist.

But if you do not believe that George Bush is by nature deeply divided, crushed by ambivalence, genuinely trying to reconcile opposing factions and contrary realities (his reputed lack of introspection and lack of interest in the details suit him well, making him seem somehow unbiased, a purer vessel than a thinking man would be), then you have to conclude that something else is going on here.

Each successive presidency – save for the first Bush presidency – is said to be the most media-savvy operation ever. And the second Bush reign is the savviest. The Bush people, you have to fairly assume, know what they are doing – at least when it comes to media.

This thing is being played out so lovingly for a reason. It’s a tease. GWB is a flirt. It’s a jockish style of flirting. Holding you down for a second.

The recent, rather weird confab at the ranch was a great example of this style of flirtation. Let it be known that all the war-planning principals are on their way to Crawford for a meeting. Whip up press interest. And then say, “No, not at all, no discussion of war. Why would you think that?”

Oh, what a slap on the back.

Someone has likely deduced that the prospect of war – whether or not we actually end up going to war – is a beautiful backdrop for this president. It definitely helps make him out to be a powerful and hugely formidable guy. And it lends him what he does not otherwise naturally possess, which is gravitas.

What’s more, it’s all about him. He’s the center of the drama. He’s the man. And the suspense only increases that focus on him.

He has the ability and, we have been led to believe, the will to exercise the power (with Clinton, we would have doubted his will). Therefore, he becomes the power. The greatest power, arguably, that history has ever known resides in him.

Debate is fine, but in the end, as the White House keeps saying with quite a leap of logic, it’s his decision.

This isn’t process. It ain’t group-think.

It’s a father’s decision (GWB isn’t the son any longer – which is no small accomplishment).

Interestingly, as this thing is prolonged, it doesn’t so much increase the stridency of the disputatious voices as increase the number of disputatious voices – leaving GWB as arbiter, and as true beacon.

And craftily, to the extent that he does not unleash the power, does not decide to do what we understand he is able and willing to do at any minute, or delays doing what we know he wants ever so much to do, he appears tempered rather than indecisive. This is no little feat, either – it’s a very subtle piece of manipulation to be able to pump everybody up and then still be able to back off. With such subtlety, we might have avoided Vietnam.

At the heart of this drama, this pantomime of decision-making, there is GWB’s strange confidence – or doubtlessness. There is no angst here, or ambivalence. Everybody else is off balance; GWB is centered.

This is, I suspect, what worries the rest of the world most. This preternatural confidence. Rummy and Cheney have it, too.

It comes, it seems fair to assume, from an absolute belief in modern war-making skills (that is, after all, what Rummy and Cheney do – making modern war is their professional reason for being).

They believe we can’t lose. They believe we can’t not win easily and efficiently, and with quite a bit of style. They believe we are, to an extent never before imagined – at least never before so credibly imagined – all-powerful. (Of course, we may not be, but that is a different issue than believing we are.)

Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Gulf.

The nature of war may have actually been altered – decisively and profoundly.

We really might be able – certainly we have the theoretical wherewithal – to quickly destroy anybody’s basis for holding power. And to do this with (for us) only the most minimal losses. Voilà.

What’s more, Bush, Rummy, and Cheney know – or believe – that our power to win and win quickly is so absolute that what opposition there is will invariably melt, as it always does, in the face of inevitable victory.

This is as reasonable an explanation as any for the cat-swallowed-the-canary countenance of the three men and for their remarkable, even blasé, confidence.

What must be most frightening to a good deal of the rest of the world is that all this may be true. We may really have perfected war. Or at least covered the downside of war – leaving only upside.

It could even be that causing regime change in Iraq, or talking so matter-of-factly about it, is not principally about getting rid of Saddam at all but about making everybody understand that we can do it – in short order, and with minimal casualties and little political cost, overthrow an entrenched regime. This is quite a rep to have – and quite a threat to wield.

Needing only theoretical provocation, we can create regime change anywhere at will.

This can be as profound and as symbolic a threat as Hiroshima.

This helps explain why Bush, Rummy, and Cheney don’t seem very concerned about the allies thing, about coalition building. They don’t want to share this threat. Rather, they want to create this sense of nothing standing between the will and the act. That it is like flipping the switch.

It’s wild what we’ll be able to make people do. Women could be driving in Riyadh by spring.

It really is a perfectly executed construct: fatherly omnipotence, flinty countenance, even Solomon-like authority, together with absolute power. It’s the ultimate political illusion, which can be compromised only by GWB’s saying the words you just know he can’t help himself from saying: Let’s roll.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

War Games