Bill Clinton's administration was caricatured, and the last vestiges of his reputation shredded, with his famous dodge "It depends on what the definition of 'is' is."
Now, as the clock runs down to next Sunday's deadline for Saddam Hussein to make a full disclosure of his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, President Bush risks doing similar damage to his legacy — and, more importantly to the national security — by redefining the clear meaning of "regime change" in Iraq.
That meaning was originally established by Public Law 105-338 known as the "Iraq Liberation Act." When this bipartisan legislation was adopted by veto-proof margins in both houses of Congress, President Clinton chose to sign it into law. Unfortunately, as was his wont, he decided not to implement the act's direction that: "It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime."
To President Bush's credit, he has repeatedly declared regime change in Iraq to be the policy of his administration. His subordinates have echoed this principled position on myriad occasions, often in response to urging from other quarters to the effect that "containing Saddam" or disarming him would be sufficient.
The reasons Mr. Bush and his senior advisers have publicly distanced themselves from such alternatives to the toppling of Saddam can be reduced to three words: They won't work.
For confirmation, one need look no further than the situation in Iraq today after nearly a week of resumed U.N. weapons inspections. Hans Blix, the hapless Swedish diplomat chosen by Saddam's friends on the Security Council to run the search for chemical and biological weapons and their delivery systems is demonstrating why he was tapped for the job.
According to press accounts, he is selecting inspectors, not on the basis of their expertise, but in light of their inoffensiveness to Saddam. [Even U.N. officials have confided to reporters off the record that "a lot of inspectors are inexperienced" and are being hired without background checks to establish their fitness, let alone their objectivity and integrity. The conduct of the inspections to date inspires no more confidence. True to form, Mr. Blix has thus far sent his inspectors to previously known weapon and related industrial sites certain to have ceased activities of interest long ago.]
Meanwhile, Western intelligence is reporting Saddam is ordering his scientists to hide components of weapons of mass destruction in their homes and on farms. If true, this arrangement would infinitely compound the inspectors' difficulties in discovering the whereabouts of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Should enough time be allowed to elapse, the danger will grow that at least some of these weapons will wind up in the hands of terrorists or other bidders.
Yet, Mr. Blix's counterpart for the nuclear weapons inspections, Mohamed al-Baradei, told the BBC on Sunday that "it would take us probably around a year before we can come to a reasonable conclusion that Iraq does not possess the capability to have nuclear weapons."
It is against this worrisome backdrop that the Bush administration has been suggesting that what the president means by "regime change" is not necessarily the removal from power of Saddam Hussein and his ruling clique.
Now, we are told, if Saddam cooperates with the inspectors and disarms, his regime will have "changed." Ergo, no problem — and certainly no need for U.S.-led military action to liberate Iraq.
This formula may suit the United Nations, whose membership remains dominated by totalitarians and other despots and recoils from the idea that any of their peoples might be freed by dint of outside intervention. As in 1991, when the first Bush administration averred that it had no U.N. mandate to remove Saddam from power, the absence of one today could ensure the Iraqi tyrant's survival for years to come.
It may even suit the likes of Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who announced Sunday that he hopes to run against President Bush in 2004. According to Mr. Kerry, the United States would lack "legitimacy" if it acted without the support of the United Nations. Even though he voted for the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, Mr. Kerry told NBC's Tim Russert: "I'd not be willing to support the president [in unilateral action against Iraq] if it's just for regime change."
President Bush now faces a choice that will, ironically, define his presidency and perhaps his political future. He can reaffirm his commitment to change the regime in Iraq via the only means that has any hope of genuinely, let alone permanently, disarming that country — namely, by liberating its people from Saddam's misrule. If he does so, in the process assuming all the risks such an action entails, he offers hope not only to Iraqis repeatedly abandoned by the United Nations but to many millions elsewhere in the region and beyond who yearn no less than they for freedom.
If, on the other hand, Mr. Bush goes along with a redefinition of the meaning of "regime change," he will not avoid war between Iraq and the United States. If he allows the U.N. once again to trump sovereign American decisions about our security, he will simply be condemning this nation to a conflict with Saddam at some other time and under circumstances of the latter's choosing, a conflict which will, as a result, surely be more destructive and costly to both Americans and innocent Iraqis.
Perhaps betweentimes, Mr. Bush could face defeat not from a John Kerry who will applaud his inaction, but — like his father in 1992 — from a more formidable rival who condemns him for leaving Saddam in power.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.