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U.S.: White House Scrambles To Play Down Reports Of Rift On Iraq

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The White House is scrambling to play down what appears to be a deep rift in the Bush administration over its Iraq policy. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared to contradict each other recently over whether the U.S. should push for a return to Iraq of United Nations weapons inspectors. With President George W. Bush set to make a major speech on the matter next week, any differences would seem to have to be resolved soon.

Washington, 4 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a speech to war veterans last week, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said a return to Iraq of UN weapons inspectors would provide "no assurance whatsoever of compliance with UN resolutions" against the development of biological, chemical, and nuclear arms. Cheney said the U.S. cannot ignore threats like those presented by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and must act preemptively.

A few days later, in an interview with the BBC, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared to directly contradict Cheney by calling for a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. "As a first step," Powell said, "let's see what the inspectors find -- send them back in."

The statements appear to confirm reports that the Bush administration is split between those who agree with Powell -- who is viewed as seeking balanced engagement with the world -- and Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, seen as unilateralists more inclined to advocate military solutions for foreign policy problems.

To complicate matters, key figures from the administration of Bush's father -- including former Secretaries of State Lawrence Eagleburger and James Baker -- are calling on the White House to seek a new UN resolution demanding the return of inspectors before any military action is taken.

Analysts says these differences are likely to come to a head in the coming days, since U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to outline his Iraq policy in a major speech before the United Nations General Assembly on 12 September.

For now, both White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and Rumsfeld himself are strongly denying any rifts. At a briefing yesterday, Fleischer said Bush has long called for a return of UN weapons inspectors, singling out a speech he gave on 16 January. "I think the vice president and the secretary of state were both following up the president's [January] statement and reflecting on the fact that weapons inspectors are a means to an end. The end is to protect America -- it's not the mere presence of inspectors inside Iraq's borders."

Fleischer noted that in his BBC interview, Powell said the return of inspectors would be just a "first step." Asked what the next step would be, Fleischer said that inspections cannot ensure that Iraq has ceased being a threat -- that Saddam can hide his weapons and evade the eyes of inspectors. Therefore, Fleischer said, "The policy of the United States is regime change, with or without inspectors."

Asked, then, what point there is in returning the inspectors if the U.S. would still seek to topple Saddam, Fleischer said it would help the international community acquire more knowledge about whether Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.

Rumsfeld also denies any rift with Powell and, at a briefing yesterday at the Pentagon, largely echoed Fleischer on the question of arms inspectors. But he said that given the requirements of past UN resolutions and understandings Iraq agreed to after the 1991 Gulf War, the new inspections would need to be so intrusive that Baghdad is unlikely to agree to them.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said yesterday that Iraq could be ready to discuss the return of inspectors, but only as part of a larger dialogue on ending sanctions and restoring Iraqi sovereignty over all its territory.

But Rumsfeld said he believes Iraq is not serious and is simply using such statements as a delaying tactic: "I haven't seen any inclination on their [Iraqi leadership's] part to agree to anything except as a ploy from time to time to muse over the possibility, 'We might do this or we might do that,' and kind of play the international community and the UN process like a guitar, plucking the right string at the right moment to delay something."

In his BBC interview, Secretary of State Powell also said the international community needs to be presented with more information about the threat posed by Saddam. Rumsfeld would not comment directly on Powell's remarks but said that once Bush decides on what action to take against Iraq, he will take his case to the world: "What the president wants to do, and will do in his own time, is to provide information that he feels is important with respect to any judgment he decides to make. And he has not decided what judgments he may make, but he certainly would underpin those judgments with factual information."

Analysts differ on whether a rift exists in the White House concerning Iraq.

Ted Galen Carpenter of Washington's Cato Institute believes there is a rift in the administration and that Powell is especially unenthusiastic about war with Iraq: "[Powell] regards the reintroduction of inspectors as a legitimate option. Other members of the Bush administration, I think, regard that as nothing more than a pretext, hoping that Saddam Hussein refuses to allow the inspectors to return and that would then give us a reason for military action."

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute, a think tank, tells RFE/RL that there is a difference of opinion between Cheney's wing and Powell's. But he says the Bush administration thrives on internal debate and always finds a common policy in the end.

European media reports yesterday, quoting anonymous diplomats, said a consensus is emerging among countries that have been critical of U.S. rhetoric on Iraq, such as France and Germany, to back the passage of a new UN resolution demanding an immediate return of weapons inspectors to Iraq.

Reuters said that UN Security Council members Britain and France are working closely to co-sponsor the resolution and that Russia would be unlikely to veto it if it contained no explicit military threat. China, also a Security Council member, would likely abstain from voting, the report said.