(Captain's log): President Bush keeps surprising people, especially his critics. They rail and rant and somehow keep losing. And there seems to be a pattern which he follows about major policy decisions which is developing as something a trademark for his administration.
Facing some sort of major political problem, Bush keeps silent and doesn't really comment. Opponents criticize him, and the head of their rhetoric rises as they smell blood and feel as if he is on the run. His lack of response encourages them, and they seem to make points.
And then Bush will make a speech, and everything changes. He will lay out a coherent policy and explain it. But even more important, after he does so the context of the discussion itself will have changed, for everyone involved. In the first couple of days after the speech there is a muted silence from his critics as they realize, in stunned silence and then in rising horror, how deeply he's snookered them. And they realize that his previous silence and apparent inaction was actually a sign of his patience and determination, and that he'd been giving them rope to hang themselves.
That happened last year with respect to the struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians. The concept which had dominated political discussion of that for the previous fifteen years had been how outsiders could intervene in order to impose a solution on both sides to give the Palestinians enough of what they wanted so that they'd stop attacking Israel. The emphasis was on appeasement, and on paying off Arafat. Arafat was automatically assumed to be the Palestinian leader and any negotiation had to be with him.
Then Bush made his speech, and what he said was that the US would no longer deal with Arafat. The US was in favor of an independent Palestinian homeland but only after the Palestinians proved they were worthy of one by holding honest elections, instituting a new government which wasn't a violent kleptocracy, booting Arafat, and stopping the attacks against Israel. Once those things happened the US would negotiate to try to bring about a Palestinian state, but until they did the US wouldn't even try.
And he's stuck with that. And if you think about it, there's been a fundamental shift in the entire discussion about the Palestinians since then.
Bush did the same thing last fall regarding dealing with the UN and Iraq; after months of criticism about unilateralism, he actually said he'd deal with the UN. But he did so on his own terms, and the suspicions of some notwithstanding it did not amount to a surrender of US sovereignty to UN control. What he said was that he'd work with the UN if the UN did the right thing, and kiss the UN off if it didn't. (That isn't how he phrased it, but that was what it amounted to and everyone realized it.) But the effect of that was to cut the legs out from under most of those who had been criticizing him for months, and to permanently change the basis of discussion for everyone on all sides of the issue.
I have a feeling it's about to happen again. There's an uncanny similarity between the kind of silence we're looking at now regarding beginning military operations in Iraq, and the same silence from the administration just before those two other cases. The opponents are heated white hot; they're tossing around all kinds of rhetorical arguments; and yet there still seems to be total determination and unshakeable will in the administration which hasn't been voiced.
And I think that sometime in the next three weeks Bush will make another of those speeches and change the political climate again. He will yet again make his critics look foolish. He will declare a policy, and explain it clearly, and afterwards we'll all look back and realize that he was yet again giving his critics plenty of rope to hang themselves.
When will it happen? I'm not totally sure about that. I don't think it will be the State of the Union address. I suspect it's going to happen shortly after the January 27 UNMOVIC/IAEA report.
And the result will be impotent fury among his opponents as they realize that they've been snookered by the cowboy, yet again.
Update: And after writing this I began to work through my mail and discovered that Daniel Wiener has come to much the same conclusion.
Update: Arkat Kingtroll writes me to point out that the State of the Union Address is scheduled for January 28, one day after the January 27th UN report is due. I was not aware of that; it's interesting and may well be more than a coincidence. On that basis, the SOTU address may well be when he does this, especially since he'll be addressing a Republican-dominated Congress. Arkat points out that last year's SOTU address was the "Axis of Evil" speech, which means that Bush isn't afraid to introduce these kinds of issues into the SOTU address.
I confess that I find that argument compelling. I think he's right; the SOTU address will be when the hammer falls.