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U.S.: Press Calls For Bush To Begin National Debate On Iraq Policy

  • Charles Recknagel

As debate continues over whether the U.S. is planning a military campaign against Baghdad, calls in the media are mounting for Washington to share any evidence it has that Iraq represents an imminent threat to Western interests. So far, Washington has refrained from doing so. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the growing demands that Washington make its case for attacking Iraq or stop the war talk.

Prague, 22 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When asked by reporters what Washington plans to do about Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush frequently gives a single answer.

He restates that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who poses a threat to the West because of his efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. But he stops short of revealing how he will respond to that threat, saying only that he is "a patient man" and that all options, including military action, remain open.

The U.S. president again took that stance this week at a meeting at his ranch in the southern state of Texas with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Bush dismissed what he called the "intense speculation" that there might be military action against Iraq anytime soon, but repeated his position that a regime change is "in the interest of Iraq" and the world.

"I say it in my speeches that I am a patient man. And when I say I am a patient man, I mean I am a patient man. And that we will look at all options, and we will consider all technologies available to us, and diplomacy and intelligence. But one thing is for certain -- this administration agrees that Saddam Hussein is a threat."

But if Bush is in no hurry to signal exactly what he plans to do about Iraq, the Western press is becoming increasingly impatient with that posture. In recent weeks, editorials and commentaries in leading U.S. newspapers have repeatedly called on the White House to begin a serious national debate over Iraq and either make a case for military action or stop the war talk.

One of the most outspoken has been "The New York Times." Early this month, an editorial noted that "a debate about U.S. intervention in Iraq was gathering steam, in part thanks to hearings held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, [but] oddly, senior administration officials have yet to join the public discussion."

The paper also said that, despite the fact top Bush advisers have publicly labeled Saddam a danger, "the administration continued to maintain that it had decided on no specific plan for dealing with Iraq and therefore could not engage in the substance of the debate."

Other calls for debate have been equally forceful. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, wrote recently in a commentary in "The Washington Post" that "the U.S. may have to go to war to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq because the potential nexus between conspiratorial terrorism and the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam is said to be producing cannot be blithely ignored." But, he added, "War is too serious a business and too unpredictable in its dynamic consequences -- especially in a highly flammable region -- to be undertaken because of a personal peeve, demagogically articulated fears, or vague factual assertions."

Even columnists who frequently write that they are already convinced Saddam is a menace have joined the call for the White House to make its case. Al Hunt, a commentator appearing in "The Wall Street Journal," wrote that "the issue now is how and when [Saddam] will be overthrown and with what ramifications.... But what's missing is an important national debate on how to achieve that and what it portends. That should begin forthwith."

Yet if calls for a public debate have been numerous, the most detailed discussions over Iraq so far have taken place mainly among journalists, policy experts, and legislators, not between these groups and the administration. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month heard testimony regarding Iraq only from nongovernmental experts and former senior government officials. The head of the committee, Senator Joseph Biden, has said he plans to hold hearings later this summer to question senior administration officials about their Iraq policy.

The apparent slowness of the Bush administration to make its case to the U.S. Congress and the American public has caused considerable speculation regarding the reasons behind it.

Some analysts have said that Washington first hopes to find what the press calls a "smoking gun" -- undeniable evidence that links Baghdad directly to the 11 September attacks on America.

No such proof has yet emerged, despite early reports that the alleged leader of the suicide bombers, Mohammed Atta, met in April 2001 with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. "The Washington Post" quoted senior U.S. administration officials as saying earlier this year that there was no evidence Atta, who then resided in America, left or returned to the U.S. at the time he was supposed to have held the meeting in Prague.

A newer development that now is getting close press inspection is evidence that members of a militant group trained by Al-Qaeda experimented with making chemical weapons in northern Iraq, an area outside Baghdad's control. If the group is found to have received any assistance from the Iraqi regime, a clear link between Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs and international terrorism could be established.

Still, some observers suggest that Washington's poor record so far in presenting a clear Iraq policy may not be due to lack of evidence but to differences of opinion within the Bush administration. Those divisions pit advocates of intervening in Iraq by force against those who argue that diplomatic and political options -- such as reintroducing UN arms inspectors -- should be exhausted first.

Charles Duelfer was deputy chairman of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq from 1993 to 2000 and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He described some of the discord in the Bush administration in an interview with RFE/RL's Iraq Service.

"There is a lot of internal argumentation over the various plans and notions of how to implement the president's policy. I think that, fundamentally, what is missing in Washington are agreed, organizing principles. And I think they are missing because, frankly, under the president, there is no single person in charge. There is no single voice."

He continues: "The philosophy of the Bush administration has been to have the White House and the National Security Council coordinate policy, but not so much to drive policy. And it's a bureaucratic law of nature, I suppose, [that] the various departments or agencies will then squabble and fight, and reasonably so, because they reflect different points of view."

As the U.S. administration works out its Iraq policy, press concern over the question has grown with leaks of Pentagon documents envisioning -- as one possible plan -- the use of large numbers of U.S. troops in a massive ground invasion. Concern also has mounted over the risks to the world economy and to regional stability that any attack on Iraq might bring.

The growing press concern has caused some top U.S. officials to urge the media not to focus too much on what might be Washington's strategy before the administration itself enunciates it. Rumsfeld said this week that "it's a mistake for the press and the media to focus excessively on this one subject and particularize everything to it." He added: "I find that the [press] debate and the discussion and the national dialogue and the international dialogue is a little out of balance."

Bush said yesterday after meeting with Cheney and Rumsfeld that his administration will consult with the U.S. Congress and America's allies over Iraq. One of America's closest allies, Canada, said early this week that it would not aid a U.S.-led military action against Baghdad unless it has strong evidence of imminent Iraqi aggression.

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