GLOAT FREE ZONE
Robert Novak reports some sound political strategy out of the White House:
When Saddam’s capture became public Sunday morning, presidential aides were instructed to make the White House a “gloat-free zone.” Accordingly, statements by staffers were low-key. Bush himself managed to restrain his natural high spirits with a sober four-minute speech that made clear that armed struggle in Iraq is not over.
Bush’s political team was going to make sure he did not repeat the same mistake he made on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln months ago when “Mission Accomplished!” was heralded. The White House first announced that a press pool would be admitted to the president’s noon remarks Sunday, then reversed that judgment. Reporters were kept out to make sure there would be no dangerous question-and-answer period that might show Bush gloating. “If I had my way, the president wouldn’t answer any questions between now and the election,” said one Republican political operative.
Smart indeed. There’s no point in tooting one’s own horn when others are lined up to do it for you, in any event.
Capturing Saddam is particularly important for domestic politics because Democrats have been so aggressive in taunting Bush for the failure to do so until now. The dictator being at large has been part of the set political speech by all the serious contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. They can still bring up the failure to apprehend Osama bin Laden, but he has long since been eclipsed by Saddam as an object of American hate.
In the view of the Bush political team, Saddam’s capture poses particularly difficult questions for the Democratic front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. He has been against intervention in Iraq from the start, and former Vice President Al Gore endorsed him last week precisely for that reason.
Beyond politics, Bush aides consider this a much bigger victory than they will publicly admit. In playing down the significance of the capture to avoid the impression of arrogance, the White House is leading some commentators on television to minimize the importance of what happened.
Actually, the president’s national security team thinks the events of this weekend will exert enormous influence in Iraq and through the entire region. They especially point to the picture of a bedraggled Saddam not trying to use his pistol in a do-or-die resistance and meekly submitting to American GIs sticking tongue depressors into the unresisting tyrant’s throat.
This television image spread worldwide, say Bush’s Middle East experts, is expected to have special impact throughout the Arab world. The downgrading of Saddam’s reputation as somebody who can stand up to the Americans is immense. Even though Saddam apparently was not micromanaging the guerrilla warfare, his removal from the scene is considered a psychological blow to Arab extremist forces all over the region.
I agree with this assessment.