By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/11/2004 8:53:07 AM ET 2004-02-11T13:53:07

I keep waiting for the bloodletting to begin, the ritual slaughter of careers that comes with controversy in the capital. George W. Bush is a loyal man — and loyalty is a good thing — but I don't see how he can survive the searing politics of Iraq (if, indeed, survival is possible at all) without the dramatic departure of some people, maybe even Vice President Dick Cheney.

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"WMD" stands for "weapons of mass destruction," of course, but the acronym also could be short for "war means defeat" if the president, as they used to say in various administrations, fails to "get out ahead of the story."

Rather than do that, so far, he's done everything he can to play sitting duck by not blaming anyone for the fact that we went to war in Iraq on what turned out to be (and what some argued at the time was) bogus information about the imminence of the threat.

Maybe, to his credit, Bush accepts the fact that firing every soul in Washington would not solve his problem, which is that it was he — in one of the biggest gambles of the modern presidency — who issued the order to invade Mesopotamia. Still, having established yet another group to study intelligence failures — with a deadline beyond Election Day — Bush will have a hard time ousting (blaming) anyone in the meantime.
  
I have been traveling the county pretty continuously for the last couple of months and a few sentiments stand out among the many voters — not just Democrats — I've talked to. One is the depth of their love of country, and their upbeat, almost defiantly hopeful attitude now, in the third year after 9/11. On economics, they are angry at the swells, and at the thievery of greedy corporate CEOs, but remain focused more on making money for themselves than on resenting the wealth of others. These deep emotions — patriotism, hunger to succeed financially — don't pose a threat to George Bush this year; in fact, such bedrock American attitudes probably protect him.

All alone on Iraq
But he's out there all alone on Iraq.

This country simply has no history of going to war half-cocked and trigger-happy. Our ideal is the reluctant warrior; Alan Ladd in "Shane," Gary Cooper in "High Noon." We aren't (and don't think of ourselves as) quick-drawing gunslingers who shoot first and ask questions later. To argue that the best way to keep the peace is to act on the edge of recklessness is Real-politik of a certain chilling sort. But even if it makes some sense in a world full of thugs and terrorists out to destroy us, it isn't the American Way. If we have to change our national character, the president needed to tell us why. He didn't.  

And that failure is costing him, because it gave him no safety net to fall into if the WMD weren't found. Polls show the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are not at the top of voters' concerns. I don't buy it. The sense I get is of Iraq as an undertone, a kind of dirge playing softly beneath the pop charts. Americans tend to judge their presidents on the Big Calls they make, and Bush's decision to go to Iraq was one of the biggest. Voters want to believe that he made such a fateful decision with utmost, even agonizing, care. Now they're not sure that he did, which makes them wonder what the war really was about.

At the least, it seems, he was poorly served. Who can or will be blamed? 

George Tenet, the CIA director, is the most obvious candidate for career cancellation. His agency got it wrong, even if it never used the word "imminent" in its reports. But the CIA is the ultimate dangerous nettle; it stings when grasped. Tenet & Co. are the ultimate bureaucratic survivalists, and can leak damaging information on a moment's notice.

Remember Joe Wilson?
Remember the Joe Wilson story, the one about how the White House had leaked the identity of his CIA-agent wife? The assumption in Washington is that it was a CIA source that gave that story the credibility it needed to wind up on the front page of The Washington Post. And now White House aides are parading before a federal grand jury. "The administration people are scared to death of Tenet," one very well-placed source told me. "He's burned them once, and would do it again."

At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz would seem to be candidates for departure, but firing them would mean undermining what remains of the rationale for the war: the notion that we can and must make the Middle East safe for democracy, or at least rid it of the root causes of terrorism. What philosophical basis would the Bush Axis of Evil theory have then, and who would defend it?

That leaves Cheney, who, by all accounts, has been the advocate of the war with the closest proximity to, and fund of credibility with, the president himself. As unapologetic and gung-ho as ever, the vice president is a man of conviction, and seems very much to love the behind-the-scenes power role he occupies. The president made it clear months ago that he wanted Cheney to remain on the ticket. "He is unfireable," one White House source told me, and I believe him.

So that leaves President Bush himself — and the judgment about his employment status won't be decided until November, by his own Boss, the American voter.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.

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