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Power Play

In the span of ten days, President Bush flexed his executive muscles and changed the conventional wisdom on Iraq.

12:00 AM, Sep 19, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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WE HAVE JUST WITNESSED one of the swiftest and most effective exercises of presidential power ever. And while practically no one has recognized it as extraordinary and historic, it was both. President Bush and his subordinates, by laying out the case for regime change in Iraq, changed the political dynamic at home, the world's stance toward the United States and Iraq, and the course of events. All this happened in 10 days, from September 3 to September 12.

Consider where things stood a month ago. The Bush administration was divided over how to confront Saddam Hussein. The press was bristling with announcements of former allies who wanted no part in invading Iraq. Both Bush's job performance and support for deposing Saddam were slipping in public opinion polls. Former GOP officials such as Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under the first President Bush, were voicing strong criticism of plans for military action against Iraq. And Democrats, plus some Republicans, were noisily insisting that Bush "make the case" against Saddam Hussein in regards to his development of weapons of mass destruction. In short, August saw Bush's Iraq policy under far more widespread attack than the White House had anticipated.

September has been different. The Bush administration's campaign to build support for removing Saddam began with a speech by Vice President Cheney right after Labor Day. He took on critics and emphasized Saddam's efforts to produce nuclear weapons. Others administration figures followed, with the Big Three--Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell--appearing on the Sunday shows talking about one thing: Iraq. Then came Bush's two speeches on September 11, which set the stage for his address to the United Nations the next day, pointing out Saddam's continued defiance of U.N. resolutions requiring disarmament, and an end to political repression and trafficking with terrorists. Bush embarrassed the United Nations by emphasizing its failure to enforce those resolutions.

Consider where things stand now, as compared to mid-August. The Bush administration, including Powell, is singing the same tune with no dissenting voices. Allies against Iraq--including Norway, Denmark, Spain, and Italy--are cropping up all over the world. Poll numbers have soared, with two-thirds of Americans now favoring military action against Iraq. Amazingly enough, Scowcroft and some other critics have flipped and endorsed Bush's anti-Iraq crusade. And Democrats have changed their tune, eagerly seeking to vote on a resolution approving the use of military force against Saddam.

Whew! A total turnaround, caused solely by the exercise of presidential power. As Bush demonstrated, presidents have the world's largest megaphone and can seize the attention of the media in a way that lesser political figures such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle cannot. Of course, a president has to use his inherent ability to command center stage deftly, and Bush did. Everything the administration did from September 3 pointed to Bush's U.N. speech. It was narrowly focused to make one point: The United Nations must act forcefully against Saddam or the United States will.

In 10 days in September, Bush blew away most of his critics and lined up much of the world in the fight against Saddam. Iraq's disingenuous offer of a return to unconditional arms inspections didn't change that. Even the press was skeptical of Saddam's sudden eagerness to allow inspectors. Saddam, too, was reacting to the Bush campaign against him. Only he was too late. The exercise of presidential power had already assured that, one way or another, he is doomed.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.