Maureen Dowd: The Xanax Cowboy (The New York Times, March 9, 2003) [Xanax: Pharm. Trademark, a brand of aprazolam; alprazolam: a drug used in the treatment of anxity]


WASHINGTON You might sum up the president's call to war Thursday night as "Message: I scare."

As he rolls up to America's first pre-emptive invasion, bouncing from motive to motive, Mr. Bush is trying to sound rational, not rash. Determined not to be petulant, he seemed tranquilized.

But the Xanax cowboy made it clear that Saddam is going to pay for 9/11. Even if the fiendish Iraqi dictator was not involved with Al Qaeda, he has supported "Al Qaeda-type organizations," as the president fudged, or "Al Qaeda types" or "a terrorist network like Al Qaeda."

We are scared of the world now, and the world is scared of us. (It's really scary to think we are even scaring Russia and China.)

Bush officials believe that making the world more scared of us is the best way to make us safer and less scared. So they want a spectacular show of American invincibility to make the wicked and the wayward think twice before crossing us.

Of course, our plan to sack Saddam has not cowed the North Koreans and Iranians, who are scrambling to get nukes to cow us.

It still confuses many Americans that, in a world full of vicious slimeballs, we're about to bomb one that didn't attack us on 9/11 (like Osama); that isn't intercepting our planes (like North Korea); that isn't financing Al Qaeda (like Saudi Arabia); that isn't home to Osama and his lieutenants (like Pakistan); that isn't a host body for terrorists (like Iran, Lebanon and Syria).

I think the president is genuinely obsessed with protecting Americans and believes that smoking Saddam will reduce the chances of Islamic terrorists' snatching catastrophic weapons. That is why no cost shattering the U.N., NATO, the European alliance, Tony Blair's career and the U.S. budget is too high.

Even straining for serenity, Mr. Bush sounded rattled at moments: "My job is to protect America, and that is exactly what I'm going to do. . . . I swore to protect and defend the Constitution; that's what I swore to do. I put my hand on the Bible and took that oath, and that's exactly what I am going to do."

But citing 9/11 eight times in his news conference was exploitative, given that the administration concedes there is no evidence tying Iraq to the 9/11 plot. By stressing that totem, Mr. Bush tried to alchemize American anger at Al Qaeda into support for smashing Saddam.

William Greider writes in The Nation, "As a bogus rallying cry, `Remember 9/11' ranks with `Remember the Maine' of 1898 for war with Spain or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964. . . ." A culture more besotted with inane "reality" TV than scary reality is easily misled. Mr. Greider pointed out that in a Times/CBS News survey, 42 percent believe Saddam was personally responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and in an ABC News poll, 55 percent believe he gives direct support to Al Qaeda.

The case for war has been incoherent due to overlapping reasons conservatives want to get Saddam.

The president wants to avenge his father, and please his base by changing the historical ellipsis on the Persian Gulf war to a period. Donald Rumsfeld wants to exorcise the post-Vietnam focus on American imperfections and limitations. Dick Cheney wants to establish America's primacy as the sole superpower. Richard Perle wants to liberate Iraq and remove a mortal threat to Israel. After Desert Storm, Paul Wolfowitz posited that containment is a relic, and that America must aggressively pre-empt nuclear threats.

And in 1997, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Fox News, and other conservatives, published a "statement of principles," signed by Jeb Bush and future Bush officials Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby and Elliott Abrams. Rejecting 41's realpolitik and shaping what would become 43's pre-emption strategy, they exhorted a "Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity," with America extending its domain by challenging "regimes hostile to our interests and values."

Saddam would be the squealing guinea pig proving America could impose its will on the world.

With W., conservatives got a Bush who wanted to be Reagan. With 9/11, they found a new tragedy to breathe life into their old dreams.