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Iraq War Tolling
Cowboy Bush calling out Saddam

In 1972, John Wayne was featured in a movie—“The Cowboys”—in which the unthinkable happens: He is shot and killed by a bad guy. Audiences reacted as if America had lost its first war (which, of course, it just had).

The Duke wasn’t just shot. He was beaten up in a drawn-out fistfight first and reduced to a bloody, epic pulp. The bad guy was played by Bruce Dern who, thereafter, literally had to watch his back. Americans didn’t take kindly to their great hero fatally losing a fight. Dern was attacked, verbally and physically, by mourning fans. Yet he was killed, too, in the movie. The 10 teen-age “cowboys” the movie is titled after, whom Wayne’s character was leading on a cattle drive, plot their payback very methodically, take out Dern and his gang one by one and finish the job they were paid to do (the cattle drive). Hence, the father avenged and made proud by his surrogate sons, whose right of passage is the dagger, the noose and the rifle. There’s more than a finish-the-job kind of air floating around the White House situation room as the sharpshooters there, emboldened by script-quality successes in Afghanistan, begin to train their sights east on Iraq. There is the fact that George Bush the father started Operation Desert Storm 10 years ago, and George Bush the son seems willing to finish it, and with it the pall that has blackened the father’s legacy since: Saddam Hussein’s defiant survival.

Reference to “The Cowboys” is handy for a couple of reasons. Before Sept. 11, George W. Bush’s foreign policy—if compulsive unilateralism can be called a policy—was more that of an overconfident cowboy than a diplomat, scorching new trails in odd directions rather than improving on established ones. The Bush-cowboy persona animated many a cartoon in the European and American press. Then came Sept. 11. The cowboy hat was off, the helmet was on, and under it a seemingly more deliberate, thoughtful Bush.

Earlier this week Cowboy Bush reappeared. He had a message for Saddam, ordering him to open up Iraq to inspections for weapons of mass destruction, or else. The “else” wasn’t specified. Suspense is part of the script. But hints have been raining in clusters from Bush speeches since Sept. 11. It isn’t just nations that harbor terrorists that he promises to go after. It’s nations that manufacture nuclear or biological weapons, too.

It is understood, for inexplicable reasons, that such nations as the United States, France, Britain, Israel and Russia, which manufacture nuclear weapons, are exempt from the threat. So are India and Pakistan, whose nuclear stockpiles are growing apace with the subcontinent’s collective insecurities. So is China, even though China was inching up to the top of America’s enemy list just last summer. The nations most- wanted for their “rogue” acquisition of weapons of mass destruction are Iraq and North Korea.

A serious contingent of America’s foreign policy dons, including Henry Kissinger outside the Bush administration and Condoleezza Rice inside it, are pushing Bush to go after Iraq now. It’s the strike-the-iron- while-the-iron-is-hot school of thought, the same school of thought that brought us Vietnam and Lebanon, the same school of thought that once built up Saddam (to oppose Iran), the same school of thought that once built up Osama bin Laden (to fight Afghanistan’s Soviet invaders). In each case, the iron turned out to be a land mine, blowing up in America’s face.

Now the school of thought is at it again, with one additional, dangerous component it may be playing on: the Bush-Bush, father-son axis of history. Bush the son not only can make good on his pledge to rid the world of evil ones. He can right his father’s legacy once and for all.

Striking Iraq’s iron is a dangerous and foolish proposition in itself. Secretary of State Colin Powell is right to oppose it: It would, he says, crumble the international coalition supporting the United States in Afghanistan. It would also expand a needless war against a man crazy enough with power, but not so crazy as to risk losing it by annihilation (Saddam’s remotest use of nuclear or biological weapons anywhere would bring his instant destruction by equally massive means). So Bush’s war would be more The Bushes’ War than anything resembling necessary, preemptive action. It would be cowboyism, not leadership.

It’s notable that Mark Rydell, who directed “The Cowboys,” first wanted George C. Scott to play the title role, not John Wayne. Scott was best known for his Oscar-winning performance in “Patton”—the very real general who knew the difference between fighting battles to win a war and merely playing war. Overawed by its own luck and distance from the conflict, the White House is verging on confusing the two, even as Saddam bucks up for the game.

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