Bush's Reality Check: He Knows How Hard This Is. but as Bush Rattles Sabers against Bin Laden, His Tough Talk May Give Him Much-Needed Room to Maneuver

Article excerpt

Aboard Air Force One, on the way to Chicago, the talk turned to crop-dusters. George W. Bush mused aloud about how terrorism had turned a lowly form of aviation into a potentially lethal weapon. "Who would have thought of crop-dusters?" he asked the congressmen sharing breakfast with him. Increased scrutiny of the dusters, which he ordered last week, might have its comical aspects. He imagined a Texas good ole boy accidentally flying over the presidential ranch in Crawford--only to be greeted by a screaming flight of F-16s. "That'll be one surprised Bubba!" Bush said with a laugh.

If only everything was as easy as chasing a lost Bubba from the skies. Bush gave the members of Congress a tutorial on the difficulties of dealing with Osama bin Laden's deadly network, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the wider terrorist world. He talked about the need for patience--and precision. People needed to understand, he said, that the effort would be complex, time-consuming. The horror of Black Tuesday called for a "proportional response," chimed in one pol. Bush corrected him. "An effective response," he said.

It turns out that in George Bush's world, "effective" does not necessarily mean only military--at least not with traditional methods, and not to the extent the world might have expected given the president's fitfully swaggering rhetoric. By accident or design, Bush has found the best use for America's overwhelming military might. By hinting at the use of apocalyptic force, you raise the prospect of global political upheaval. But that very fear may be the best way of scaring the world into joining us to do what's right by other means--diplomatic, financial and legal.

It's a new doctrine for a new age--and one that only a Republican with strong conservative ties could credibly attempt. Message: wouldn't we all rather keep Rambo in the basement? With dizzying speed, Bush has been transformed. He used to be a missile-loving neoisolationist with little knowledge of the world at large; now he's a relentless internationalist who--for the moment--prefers to use nonmilitary means, including humanitarian aid, to destabilize or destroy a hostile regime. He might even sanction the kind of "nation-building" he has long derided, and in the worst imaginable place: post-Taliban Afghanistan.

"Effective" is not a fiery word, like "war," or a lofty concept, like freedom. But for a president who sees himself as a CEO, "effective" is the watchword. When Bush gave his stirring address to Congress, the goals he set were clear: to eradicate terrorism and allow life to return to something approaching normal. But now, in every sphere--from military strategy to consumer economics, from homeland defense to congressional relations--Bush is facing the daunting realities of turning those pledges into action.

Grief counselors say the third week after a tragedy is the turning point--the time when emotions begin to fade and reality sets in. Last week was it. Bush finished it with strong support. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, his overall job-approval rating holds steady at a lofty 86 percent, as does his score (88 percent) for handling the crisis so far. More important, perhaps, Americans increasingly accept his plea for patience as he plots his moves in "the first war of the 21st century." Two weeks ago, 59 percent agreed the United States should "take as long as necessary to plan something that will work." Last week 63 percent thought so.

The risk for Bush is obvious and grave. …