Caught in a trap

President Bush has been backed into a corner and has no one to blame but himself. Support in this country for getting rid of Saddam Hussein fades with each passing day, even while the United States gets ready to invade Iraq.

How the president got into this mess is easier to explain than what he will be able to do about it.

From the outset, Bush knew war with Iraq would be a tough sell. The Democrats, even while supporting his war resolution, spoke against it. Their arguments were often irrational and contradictory, but in the absence of a clear message from the president, they gained a foothold with Americans.

Why take action against Iraq and not North Korea? went one argument — which, translated, means if you don’t take action against every evil in the world, you are not allowed to take any action against any evil. The administration was urged to use diplomacy, as if the example of the failed diplomatic policies of the Clinton White House in North Korea didn’t argue the very opposite.

America should not go it alone, was the advice of the president’s own Secretary of State, Colin Powell, as if morally bankrupt countries such as Russia, China and France should have a veto power over our own national security. Unfortunately, this argument apparently persuaded the president that he could have his war without political fallout. It has been a serious mistake, and Bush has fallen into the trap.

Maybe the president’s inexperience on foreign policy finally caught up to him. Maybe he let political considerations undercut his own best instincts. Whatever the reason, Bush committed to the resumption of U.N. inspections when the whole idea of invading Iraq was getting rid of Hussein, not getting him to comply with the inspectors. The minute Bush began fudging on our real and legitimate intentions in Iraq, he undercut his own credibility and allowed Saddam wiggle room.

We knew it was problematic that the inspection team would be able to find hard evidence that would convince those who would rather not be convinced. It isn’t as if Saddam has his deadly stockpile hidden conveniently under a couple of palaces. Our intelligence reports told us his weapons research is mobile and constantly changing over a vast territory that not only includes Iraq, but also neighboring countries.

This was never going to be another Cuban missile-crisis scenario where Adlai Stevenson brandishes the smoking gun and proves the enemy liars in front of the world. Yet Bush played his U.N. card, perhaps hoping that Saddam would not cooperate with the inspectors, allowing us the pretext to invade. Saddam is smarter than that.

If you doubt we are losing the very public-relations war we wanted to win, consider this: Our one staunch ally, Great Britain, is counseling that we should put off an invasion a couple of months to see if the inspectors can find proof that Saddam is doing what we know he is doing. The folks who opposed an invasion against Iraq have not only been persuaded by the U.N. charade, but in fact they have emboldened their attacks on our policy.

A recent Knight-Ridder poll found that 83 percent of Americans will only support war with Iraq if it is sanctioned by the U.N. Add to this that other public-opinion polls are starting to show most of us believe there will be no war with Iraq after all.

I am not suggesting the president will decide to forget about Iraq, but he has made his own job of preparing the country for war infinitely tougher. Bush’s quandary is that, with every passing day, Saddam Hussein gets closer to obtaining a nuclear threat. And the longer the president delays, the more his support for the war erodes — ensuring that this will be an unpopular war. But in the meantime, Bush has committed himself to a process that threatens to drag on with no satisfactory end in sight.

Oddly enough, the new threat from North Korea — which should have taught us the limitations of diplomacy with dictators who don’t keep their promises — has served to actually bolster the argument against war with Iraq. The president has been dealt a bad hand in North Korea from the previous administration. With 37,000 American troops in harm’s way and the North Koreans already having a couple of nuclear bombs, his options are much more limited than in Iraq. So for these reasons, he is trying to low-key the threat.

But all that serves to do is highlight what looks to some like an irrational obsession with Saddam.

So the clock ticks while we wait to see if the president can escape the trap.

Tom Cardella can be heard before and after the NFC Championship Game on Sunday on 94-FM WYSP.