Matt Welch

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ion 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 nd 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.

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