- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

Saddam Hussein is not the only one who can change President Bush's mind about going to war. So could the man Mr. Bush calls "the boy genius," Karl Rove.
While one front of the war decision unfolds visibly at the United Nations this week, an equally important dimension is playing out quietly in Karl Rove's White House office. With war hanging in the balance, the court of international opinion at the United Nations may not be as important as the court of American public opinion overseen by Mr. Rove's Office of Strategic Initiatives.
Two recent books about him "Bush's Brain" and "Boy Genius" confirm that Karl Rove is Mr. Bush's most influential adviser. As the president's top political and policy aide, Mr. Rove's hand is seen virtually everywhere, from the Republican victories in the midterm 2002 elections to the many new initiatives offered in last week's State of the Union address.
In a rare interview with reporters, Mr. Rove insisted he is no Svengali dominating the president's thinking. But having the pulse of the American voter and the ear of the president makes Mr. Rove a powerful man despite his preference to remain behind the scenes.
Americans are uncomfortable, however, with the role political advisers like Mr. Rove play in the White House. There was a sense of relief when James Carville, the man who devised Bill Clinton's election strategy, did not seek a government post. Even so, Mr. Clinton was widely criticized for using opinion polls to make decisions as president.
Mr. Rove's influence on the president's policy decisions has similarly been attacked. When John DiIulio resigned as head of Mr. Bush's office of faith-based initiatives, he charged the White House with making decisions based upon politics, not sound policy. While not mentioning Mr. Rove by name, Mr. DiIulio criticized the "Mayberry Machiavellis" who were running the White House.
But is it really wrong for a democratic leader to stay in close touch with the thinking of the people? Dick Morris, who played a similar role for President Clinton until he resigned in disgrace, explained that democracy does not have an engine but, like a sailboat, is powered by winds. The country can only go where the people's energies will take it. Mr. Clinton, according to Mr. Morris, knew where he wanted to go and used polling, not to fix the destination, but to see which aspects of the destination created public support for the journey. Sailing uses the winds of public opinion to tack toward the shore, and a wise leader finds and uses those winds.
In that sense, shouldn't we be grateful that Mr. Rove keeps the president in tune with voter preferences? What will Mr. Rove tell the president about American public opinion and the war? Until the State of the Union message, he would have to say that just over 50 percent of Americans favor military action against Saddam Hussein. The percentage of Americans favoring an invasion of Iraq has declined steadily in recent months, and those who oppose a war have increased. There is significant concern about going forward if there is not United Nations support, or at least a coalition of allies participating.
The State of the Union message apparently stopped the decline in support for war and started the numbers moving upward again. The most recent polls show now more than 60 percent of Americans in support of war. Both at home and abroad, however, a second U.N. resolution specifically authorizing military force would further bolster support for war. Mr. Rove believes Americans will back the war in even larger numbers once the fighting starts.
In addition to the group favoring war and those in opposition, there is a third group of Americans who need to hear more information. If, as Mr. Bush's advisers pointed out, there will be additional presidential speeches about Iraq, perhaps Mr. Rove can advise the president to target this group. Timing is one important question: Why now, why the hurry, why not wait for more inspections and more international support? The need for a pre-emptive strike is also on their minds: What is the pressing danger and why will containment not work? And the need to go it alone is an issue: Why should one country or even several enforce a Security Council resolution?
When dubious reporters met with Mr. Rove recently, they left generally impressed that the president had such an insightful leader and good communicator on his staff. If Karl Rove can help the president find his way through these decisions of war and peace, maybe he really is a genius.

David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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