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Wednesday, March 19

Bush 'somber, concerned' on the precipice of war, colleague says

By Chuck Raasch

WASHINGTON - The day he announced an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq, television cameras caught President Bush playing fetch with his dog Barney - the most powerful man in the world in a rare moment of respite.

But as the United States draws nearer to war, such moments will be rarer for a man described by a friend as ``more concerned'' than he's ever seen him.

In much of the world, Bush is caricatured as a reckless American cowboy. Iraqi leaders have labeled him an ``idiot'' and a ``moron.'' But his defenders say that in these grave hours of decision, he is anything but reckless - operating with a new degree of gravity and certainty.

``I have never seen him more somber, more concerned,'' freshman Rep. Bill Janklow, R-S.D., said at a Rotary Club luncheon in Sioux Falls on Monday. ``He understands that if he gives the word, American boys and girls will die, civilians will die.''

Added Janklow, who became a Bush confidant when both were governors: ``This is a cowboy who has ridden mile after mile after mile to stay out of war, but we are going to have one.''

Bush has been steady, but not necessarily constant, in his public appearances. In a news conference last week, he sometimes looked weary and distracted. But in Monday night's nationally televised speech giving Saddam 48 hours to leave Iraq, he appeared more resolute and focused.

Charles O. Jones, a noted presidential scholar who has studied chief executives for decades, focused on one statement in Bush's speech that Jones said was a very clear indication that Bush had made up his mind that war was necessary and that that decision had lifted a burden.

``The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat, but we will do everything to defeat it,'' Bush said. ``Instead of drifting along toward tragedy, we will set a course toward safety.''

Said Jones: ``I thought that really summarized how he views it ... that we keep drifting in this tragedy but now we are taking charge. He defined responsibility.''

Past presidents have described making decisions to go to war the loneliest moments of all. Bush often has talked about the awful weight of sending others to war and of the grim task of comforting grieving parents of dead soldiers.

``It's hard and it is extremely difficult and the only repair will come if it goes well,'' said Jones, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. ``He's taking a tremendous risk, and it's not only true around the world, it's true at home, too.''

If the United States gets bogged down in protracted war or an invasion sparks terrorism or conflict elsewhere, it could be one of history's major mistakes. But if the liberation of Iraq lessens the threat of terrorism and provides a road map to peace in the Middle East - as Bush asserts it will - it could pay off as one of history's best gambles.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, has already spoken starkly of the stakes, issuing a statement that by going to war at this time Bush ``assumes a serious responsibility before God, his conscience and history."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said ``this responsibility is shared by the president and every member of this House. And that realization should give us pause, that we have pursued the right course and that we are doing the right thing by this military action.''

To understand Bush at this moment is to understand the fundamental differences between him and his father, who organized a broader international coalition to push Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991.

``This is not a diplomat as president,'' Jones said of the current occupant of the White House. ``He is a president who is forced into doing diplomacy. And he's doing it with the style he has: straightforward and clear and not in what we think of in the standard diplomatic way.''

Jones said Bush has been labeled a ``cowboy'' even in U.S. diplomatic circles because he did not have the pedigree of his father, who had been U.N. ambassador and vice president before becoming president.

``What he faces is the combination of the lack of Washington-based foreign policy experience and the lack of prior experience of being part of a professional foreign policy cadre,'' Jones said. ``The whole gaggle of folks who have been in the State Department or foreign service. ... He's not a part of that. His father was.''

Bush's allies scoff at the ``cowboy'' label, noting the United States got a 15-0 vote from the United Nations in November to press new inspections on Iraq.

``If this were an accurate label, I don't think you would have seen a four-and-a-half or five-month search for a diplomatic solution,'' said Ralph Reed, a Republican consultant and Bush adviser.

(Contributing: David Kranz, Argus Leader)