Bush and Rope-a-Dope
Is U.S. Prez as Clever as Ali?
National Post, February 8, 2003
LOS ANGELES -- For a quick case study of how George W. Bush's government successfully manages the terms of the Iraq debate and continues to extract concessions from Saddam Hussein, consider the mere fact that it was Secretary of State Colin Powell making the case for war on Wednesday in front of the United Nations.
As recently as the second week of January, Powell was still the doves' last great hope and the hawks' last administration obstacle. America-bashing columnist John Pilger, citing Bob Woodward's new book, Bush at War, wrote that Powell was the lone voice of sanity saving Iraq from retaliatory vaporization in the first days after Sept. 11. Washington Post sabre-rattler Charles Krauthammer, citing same, suggested the Secretary may just be a devious, ass-covering careerist: "Is charade Powell's intention, the way to vindicate his misgivings about Gulf War I and to ensure that Saddam Hussein's regime remains merely contained -- and intact?" Krauthammer thundered.
In a CNN profile that week, Powell did nothing to discourage this basic interpretation. "I have been characterized as the reluctant warrior. Guilty," he said. From then until Bush's Jan. 28 State of the Union address, newspapers were filled with stories about the deepening divisions within the Cabinet and unhappiness with Powell's performance in particular, especially his failure to convince the Germans and French to back U.S. policy.
The Bush team's unity and focus, which had felt so strong for so long, seemed finally to be unravelling. Democrats, Europeans and the rest of the doubting world clamoured for evidence of Saddam Hussein's rearming, while the White House dribbled out leaks telling us not to expect any "smoking gun."
Then suddenly, skeptics the world over heard a pretty thorough case, complete with dramatic radio intercepts and other intelligence goodies, from the one administration official they actually like. "What makes the speech persuasive is Colin Powell delivering it," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, gushed to Thursday's Orlando Sun-Sentinel.
"Powell is a judicious person.... He has been restrained.... You get the sense that this thoughtful, careful man must be justified in his conclusion."
This pattern has become predictable, even if supporters and critics alike have been slow in recognizing it.
First, a top official (usually Bush, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or a well-placed "source") makes some crazy-sounding cowboy threat -- to use conventional nuclear weapons, to unleash a furious invasion on the first full moon after Jan. 27, and so on. British newspapers, German politicians and Northern Californians dutifully recoil in horror.
Soon, a prevailing counter- proposal emerges, often midwifed by Tony Blair, to talk Washington down from the ledge.
Reports resurface of a Cabinet divided between Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, and leaks play down expectations of significant policy change. At the last possible moment, Bush's team coalesces behind a single idea, agreeing on a "compromise" which suddenly gives his critics exactly what they were demanding in the first place, often in the form of a yes-or-no vote. And the ground under everyone's feet shifts decisively yet again.
Bush has used this method to spectacular effect, over and over again, by threatening unilateral action. If there is anything that can unify Midwestern congressmen, French Gaullists and New York newspapers, it's indignation at the very notion that great decisions can be made without consulting them first.
On Aug. 26 of last year, for example, White House lawyers issued an opinion that Bush could go ahead and order an attack on Iraq if he wanted to, without Capitol Hill's blessing. "The President has to get congressional approval," shot back Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives. "He must have a debate on this issue and a vote in the Congress."
Ten days later, Bush suddenly announced he would do just that, then scheduled the vote smack in the middle of the congressional election campaign. By November, Bush had his approval, and Gephardt was forced to resign as party leader after getting thumped at the polls.
On Aug. 30 of last year, after hearing a summer's worth of go-it-alone honkings, Jim Winkler, the general secretary of the United Methodist Church, warned that the Iraq conflict "can and should be dealt with by the United Nations. ... No member nation has the right to take unilateral military action without the approval of the UN Security Council, approval the United States has not received."
Two weeks later, Winkler's worst hopes were realized when Bush spoke in front of the General Assembly, asking for a resolution that he would later receive, and portraying Iraq as the UN's most important test of credibility to date.
As Jonah Goldberg of the UN-hating National Review put it, "Somehow, Bush managed, once again, to do exactly what his critics wanted him to and defeat them entirely in the process."
This tactic has come to be known, by critics and admirers alike, as the "rope-a-dope" strategy, in honour of the novel way boxer Muhammad Ali defeated heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire 28 years ago. Faced with a much more powerful opponent, Ali taunted him before the fight ("You have heard of me before you were young. You've been following me since you were a little boy. Now, you must meet me, your master!" according to Norman Mailer's The Fight), surprised everyone by aggressively attacking Foreman in the first round, then spent the rest of the night leaning defensively against the ropes, deflecting and absorbing punishment, and successfully counter-punching with precision and surprise when the big man wore himself out.
But this hardly means the pro-war crowd is satisfied. If anything, the hawks seem wired into the most belligerent and unilateralist of the Bush administration's threats, and frequently howl in disappointment whenever a nod is given to patience, or the opinion of non-Americans.
"President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair ... have been boxed in by a combination of so-called friends and allies and by their own advisors who counsel excessive prudence," warned the National Review's Michael Ledeen back in the Powell-bashing days of Jan. 9. "This is the classic pattern of appeasement. The appeasers, from the European foreign ministries to some within our own diplomatic and intellectual establishments, condemn any effective American response as an outrageous provocation."
This overheated rhetoric -- Ledeen went on to compare U.S. diplomats to Hitler's lapdogs, a slur now routinely spat at the French and Germans -- seems utterly unaffected by how far Bush has shifted the debate on Iraq the last 12 months without firing a shot.
Last February, if UN resolutions were being discussed in public at all, odds were high that the debate was over the number of child deaths attributable to economic sanctions, not the exploits of Hans Blix and Co.
Colin Powell was muddling through a process of developing more targeted "smart sanctions," aimed to ease some of the economic chokehold in deference to the French and Russians, who had long ago lost interest in enforcing the program. Weapons inspectors had been absent since 1998, and almost no one was talking about bringing them back.
Now, fast-forward a year. Instead of throwing up obstacles to economic sanctions, the French and Russians have become overnight converts to the idea of intrusive weapons inspections. Saddam Hussein himself, clearly spooked by the idea of being pulverized, has invited the inspectors back in, allowed one-on-one interviews with Iraqi scientists, and may soon cave on U2 surveillance flights.
With each new U.S. "compromise" comes an audible tightening of the noose, and a frantic new round of Arab diplomacy to persuade Saddam to walk away before the Stealth Bombers take off. Rarely before has bluster yielded so many results.
Which all begs the question: Is Bush bluffing?
As is the case with good poker players everywhere, we may never know, especially if Saddam blinks first and takes that one-way ticket to Tripoli. Bush's rhetoric has climbed down from "regime change" to "disarmament," and there hasn't been much talk lately about spreading the seed of democracy throughout the Middle East, so it is entirely plausible Saddam could be replaced by a U.S.-friendly nukes-shunning despot no more liberal than the horrendous extended family that misrules Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, Bush's Cabinet is stacked with ex-military men, including those -- like Powell and Vice-President Dick Cheney -- who were directly responsible for prosecuting the first Gulf War. They remember well the long, slow buildup of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia 12 years ago, and the challenge of keeping morale focused in the desert after months and months of no clear mandate or consistent rationale for war.
This time around, the forces are massing much quicker, and it is unlikely that Powell, Cheney or Rumsfeld would sign off on a deployment intended only for show, not tell.
In any case, it is increasingly difficult to imagine Saddam Hussein holding the same office much beyond the current, vague mid-March deadline for use of the coalition's force. That gives six more weeks for troops to mass, assassination plots to ripen, and Saudi diplomacy to run its course. The rope-a-doper is nearing his final rounds.
But there is one crucial area where the boxing analogy breaks down. Ali leaned against the ropes out of a brilliant desperation, to deal with a far stronger man using a method no one had ever contemplated. George Bush may employ the threat-and-switch to impressive effect, but his bluff is also backed by the most powerful military in the history of the world. It's not Ali-Foreman, it's Gulliver against a hundred Lilliputians. We should not be surprised when the big man's bellicose threats are taken seriously by the little people.