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Published: Wednesday, 2/5/2003

The inexorable march

President Bush has sent his fiscal 2004 federal budget to Congress, blaming projected deficits of more than $1 trillion over the next five years on the national economic recession and “a war we did not choose.”

That presumably would be the war on terrorism, although Mr. Bush no longer differentiates between the long-term conflict with an amorphous but deadly world movement and the impending military assault on Iraq. He is trying harder than ever to convince a skeptical American public that terrorism and Saddam Hussein are one and the same.

While Mr. Bush would have us believe that he experienced a whack-Saddam epiphany after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a group of his elite foreign policy advisers has had the Iraqi dictator in its cross-hairs since shortly after the first Persian Gulf War in 1990.

Most of these people - including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - served in the administration of Mr. Bush's father and haven't been able to get over the fact that Saddam managed to escape “regime change” at U.S. hands the last time around.

Whether this sense of urgency stems from residual guilt over that legendary military blunder or the fact that Saddam was armed and abetted by Bush I before the gulf war, the current President's advisers are determined that the “Butcher of Baghdad” won't get away now.

The suspicion, of course, is that Mr. Bush, who campaigned on a platform of “humble” noninterventionist foreign policy, never actually felt that way and used 9/11 as an excuse to join the hawks.

In any case, those who now advise Mr. Bush have long been making the case for Saddam's ouster.

In a 1997 letter to President Bill Clinton, they complained - in a word-for-word preview of today's White House arguments - that Saddam and whatever chemical and biological weapons he might possess were a destabilizing force in the Middle East and a threat to Israel.

“The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction,” the letter said. “In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.”

The letter, under the auspices of a right-wing group known as Project for the New American Century, was signed by Mr. Rumsfeld and such current Bush advisers as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary Of State Richard Armitage.

This long-held inclination toward military action as a solution to Middle East problems exposes a fundamental hollowness in current administration rhetoric about “a war we didn't choose.”

All along, Mr. Bush and the people around him have been pretty much inclined to give war a chance.

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