WASHINGTON - Only months after escaping the Social Security "lock box" built by his political opponents, President Bush finds himself in a new box, this one of his own making - a rhetorical and political trap that all but guarantees a military confrontation with Saddam Hussein.
"We're going to deal with him," the president declared last month.
Forget, for a moment, the pros and cons of trying to oust Mr. Hussein. Forget the chilly reception Vice President Dick Cheney received during his trip to the Middle East, the violence between Israelis and Palestinians and recent pledges of Arab solidarity with Iraq. Forget the misgivings of allies in Europe and Democrats in Congress and the lack of consensus within the administration on how (not whether) to proceed.
In the modern American presidency, words matter. Americans still wondering whether the president will target the Iraqi dictator should be prepared. Follow the words. "We're going to deal with him." U.S. military action may not be imminent, but it is inevitable.
Speculation that the president might step back from a confrontation fails to grasp the disdain this White House holds for what it sees as the hollow threats of the Clinton administration.
Recall that it was the future national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who wrote in Foreign Affairs two years ago that Mr. Clinton had "failed" to deal with Iraq "resolutely and decisively" by "sometimes threatening to use force and then backing down."
Remember that it was the future deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, who argued during the last round of standoffs with Mr. Hussein over U.N. inspections in 1998 that "the heart of the problem is that we are unable or unwilling to pursue a serious policy in Iraq, one that would aim at liberating the Iraqi people." And how best to start fomenting an Iraqi opposition to topple Mr. Hussein? "Stop sending confusing rhetorical signals."
These are not the words of an administration eager to be seen as casually threatening force and then backing down. As the president said last month, "When we speak, we mean what we say. ... We're not posturing."
Nor is the president apparently willing to give himself a way out, other than through Baghdad. The only thing that would prompt him to lift the lid on the Social Security lock box, he had said before Sept. 11, would be "a national emergency, a recession or a war." He got all three, tapped the surplus and enjoys an approval rating of 80 percent.
But the Iraq lock box has no such escape hatch, at least not yet. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that it may not even matter if inspectors could ever verify Iraq is no longer pursuing weapons of mass destruction. "Even then," he said, "the United States believes the Iraqi people would still be better off with a new kind of leadership."
Follow the words. No need for Mr. Hussein to prove he's weapons-free. The United States will make Iraq Saddam-free.
After so much tough talk, the president retreats at his peril. No doubt he has little desire to hit the 2004 campaign trail with Mr. Hussein still sipping coffee in Baghdad. Leaving the Iraqi dictator in power would invite the same fury from fellow Republicans that followed Mr. Clinton's decision to call off air strikes against Iraq in November 1998, mere hours before the planes were set to launch.
William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, spoke for many conservatives at the time when he wrote that the United States had "a chance finally to take decisive action, and the president blinked."
If President Bush were to blink on Iraq, it would risk validating the decision of his father not to march on Baghdad during the Persian Gulf war, or worse, the Clinton containment strategy, both of which conservatives have railed against for years.
Presidential rhetoric is often carefully nuanced to preserve options. President Bush's rhetoric on Iraq has done just the opposite.
For the past 11 years, U.S. policy has aimed to keep Saddam Hussein in a box, unable to move against his neighbors. In a matter of weeks, President Bush has talked himself into another kind of box, unable not to move against Mr. Hussein.
Which is why the real question about U.S. action against Saddam is no longer "if" but "when."
Terence Szuplat was chief speechwriter for former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and is a free-lance writer based in Washington.