If there has been a more historic, politically charged day in recent American history, I for one have a hard time remembering which one it might have been.
A twenty-four hour period stretching over March 6th and 7th was neatly bookended by two remarkable television appearances: President George W.Bush's first prime-time news conference since October 2001 Thursday evening and, almost exactly 24 hours later, the first prime-time appearance in decades (on CNN's Larry King Live) by Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.
President Bush made it quite clear to America and the world that he's had enough with diplomacy, and is ready to throw down the gauntlet at Saddam Hussein, with or without UN approval. "Damn the torpedos!" could be the appropriate summary line for what he said Thursday. The following night, Senator Byrd -- the "Dean of the Senate" and 85 years young -- summarized his thoughts in polar-opposite fashion, accusing President Bush of having his "eyes closed, ears closed, and mind closed" to the realities of the current international crisis that his Administration, the Senator suggests, has played such a large role in creating.
Will the historians take Byrd in hand, or give the nod for sagacity in this crisis to the second of the two Bushes? Time will tell, but I suspect they will not give Bush 43 any high marks for last night's performance. Nor will they look kindly upon Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech before the UN Security Council of Friday.
Both American leaders did everything except come out and call UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix (a) an incompetent and/or (b) a liar. Everyone watching around the world (and a goodly number here in the USA) read between the lines, reasoning that that conclusion was the only logical deduction you could make from the hawkish statements of Bush and Powell.
This approach may well backfire. Nobody likes to see good people getting dissed for bad reasons. Undermining the UN inspection team's competence and credibility is foolish, and it is not a good way for the Bushies to win friends and influence people, either here or abroad.
The vast majority of non-Americans who have no bones to pick with this country are convinced that the UN inspectors are performing to the very best of their abilities.. Why, Mr. President, needlessly trash their efforts, especially since you are not prepared to share your "evidence" of their incompetence with anyone else? If the inspectors haven't given up hope yet for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, men and women of goodwill everywhere are asking, why should the United States?
All this casts a terrible pall upon our nation's reputation. We are perceived nearly everywhere -- Europe, China, South America, yes, even in Turkey, where a $30 billion bribe proved insufficient to buy off the government of a democracy (how ironic!) whose people clearly want nothing to do with Our War -- as the bully in the china shop. We may get our way in the end, and even achieve a measure of battlefield and post-war reconstruction success, but at what cost? Is implementing regime change in Iraq really worth the price of being as despised as every school-yard bully ultimately is despised?
Let's all hope Saddam gets the message, and at the eleventh hour (as a dear friend, over dinner last night, suggested he might) does the right thing. How sweet it would be if the Iraqi tyrant decides to call it a day, delivering to the Iraqi people a 2003 version of the famous "It's a far, far better thing I do now than ever done before" speech from A Tale of Two Cities, before hightailing it out of Dodge, er, Baghdad.
As my friend pointed out, this Dickensian endgame could get us as a planet out of trouble, and into an everybody-wins scenario:
*Saddam wins, by staying alive AND leaving as his legacy a near-noble abdication that saves thousands of Iraqi lives.
*Bush wins because his tough-Texas-gunman approach is seen as having produced, in the end, regime change, the desired result all along.
* French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepan and company win by getting credit for having held back the Bushies long enough to let nature take its course.
* British PM Tony Blair wins because he was able to keep his peculiar friendship with George W. Bush intact, by riding on the proverbial tiger's back long enough to keep the US hawks from doing anything stupid.
*And the UN itself wins because it ends up looking like inspections did indeed do the trick, and nobody had to cast any gut-wrenching, institution-destroying vetoes. More importantly, the United Nations lives to fight another day, as we earthlings take a critical early step along the fits-and-starts path towards world government we will almost certainly need to follow (to survive as a race) for the rest of this century.
The only loser in all this, in fact, may well be the US economy, going to hell in a handbasket, with or without Saddam's head on a plate, and probably stuck in place for another while yet. But what a sweet world it would be if that were the biggest problem we all find ourselves facing next week.