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Washington Standing at the brink of war with Iraq, President Bush is preparing to roll the dice on a high-risk gamble that could remake the Mideast in America's image -- or trigger an explosion of violence, chaos and terrorism that shakes the world, shocks the economy and destroys his presidency. (White House/Paul Morse)...






Posted on Sat, Mar. 08, 2003 

Bush taking enormous gamble in Iraq

His domestic agenda, re-election hopes, Mideast's future all hang in balance

By RON HUTCHESON    Knight Ridder Newspapers

Washington Standing at the brink of war with Iraq, President Bush is preparing to roll the dice on a high-risk gamble that could remake the Mideast in America's image -- or trigger an explosion of violence, chaos and terrorism that shakes the world, shocks the economy and destroys his presidency.

His goals are breathtaking:

 A friendly Iraq

 Spread of democracy throughout the Mideast

 Creation of a Palestinian state living in harmony with Israel.

To win them, he risks:

 Stoking the anti-American anger of 1.2 billion Muslims

 Discarding the United Nations as an instrument of global order

 Igniting a series of conflicts in the Mideast that could imperil the world's oil-driven economy.

It is a typically bold stroke for a president whose willingness to think big and act aggressively often is unrecognized.

Bush often seeks far-reaching changes -- tax cuts in a time of soaring deficits; a homeland-security state that tests the limits of U.S. liberties; a defense buildup that spends more on the U.S. military than the next 12 biggest national militaries combined.

But no other initiative is as risky.

"This is the biggest gamble any president has taken in my lifetime. This is about so much more than Iraq. It's about America's place in the world," said John Hulsman, a foreign policy specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The ordering of the world is up for grabs."

The U.S. economy and Bush's domestic agenda and re-election hopes also hang in the balance.

A quick, successful war would send Bush's popularity surging. That would help him roll his plans for another round of tax cuts and a prescription drug subsidy for seniors through Congress.

It also would tee up his next policy change -- letting younger workers shift some Social Security taxes to the stock market -- a change to the foundation of financial security for the elderly.

But a costly war, accompanied by a wave of terrorist attacks, a spike in oil prices and increased instability in the Mideast could doom Bush's domestic agenda and his political future.

"It seems hard to imagine that if the war goes badly, he'll be re-elected," said a strategist and Bush loyalist. "This is almost sheer risk, from a political calculus."

Presidential historian Robert Dalleck said Iraq could be to Bush what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson -- the place where presidential ambitions die.

"The dangers are so substantial. I don't doubt that we'll knock off the Iraqi military in a matter of two or three weeks. ... If it goes badly, it's curtains for him."

Bush has a more optimistic view. He envisions a postwar Iraq that leads the Mideast toward democracy and pluralism. It could even help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he contends, by drying up support for Palestinian terrorist attacks.

"A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region," Bush said recently. "Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state."

Not everyone expects that happy outcome.

Bush embraced his aggressive policy toward Iraq at the behest of a handful of top national-security aides; many other senior officials believe the vision of a stable, democratic Mideast resulting from Iraq's invasion is a delusion.

"That's nuts," said Rachel Bronson, head of Mideast studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Although Bronson said she supports a war to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, she does not see much of a link to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The fate of the United Nations is also at stake. Bush already has warned the United Nations will consign itself to "irrelevance" if it fails to endorse his right to wage war.

If the world's dominant power chooses to enforce its sense of global order by waging war without heed to U.N. wishes, it would set a precedent other nations might well follow. The United Nations' usefulness could be fatally damaged.

In the Mideast, the war and a U.S. occupation of Iraq would give new ammunition to Islamic fundamentalists who feed on anti-U.S. sentiment.

Some analysts question Bush's attempt to spread democracy in a region with no history of it, a region caught in a struggle between secular and religious forces.

In Saudi Arabia, one of the most dependable U.S. allies, the autocratic royal family is trying desperately to stem the kind of anti-U.S. sentiment that resulted in the fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis.

Christopher Preble, head of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the vote by Turkey to block U.S. troop deployment illustrated the potential risk if democracy flowers in the Mideast.

"Do you really think they're going to be pro-American? And if they're not pro-American, is that really what you want?" he asked.

Even more troubling is the possibility Islamic fundamentalists could take power by the bullet, rather than the ballot. Terror chief Osama bin Laden already has urged Muslims worldwide to oust governments backing the United States in Iraq.

The CIA also has said the chances of Saddam using chemical or biological weapons against invading U.S. troops are "pretty high." And CIA director George Tenet said Saddam is more likely to order terrorist strikes against the United States if the United States attacks him than if he is left alone.

Finally, instability in the Mideast could send oil prices sky high, and instability in Saudi Arabia would be disastrous. The United States continues to import more than half its oil. And more than half of the global oil trade ships through the Persian Gulf.

Bush says he is well aware of the potential risks, and is convinced the risk of inaction is greater: "I've thought long and hard about the use of troops. ... I believe we'll prevail. I know we'll prevail. And out of that disarmament of Saddam will come a better world."


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