As he prepares for some sort of showdown with Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush is making a very public show of his intention to take no action to overthrow President Saddam Hussein without first consulting with Congress and with America's allies. Yesterday, Bush met at the White House with congressional leaders, and he promises to outline his intentions when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly next week in New York.
Washington, 5 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush is taking steps to show that his administration does not intend to act unilaterally in any confrontation with Iraq.
For months, Bush has not wavered from declaring his intention to remove Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq, even though leaders from other countries, including some American allies, say they oppose any military action against Saddam. And in the United States, many members of Congress, including some from Bush's Republican Party, have expressed concern about any plans to make war on Iraq.
Many foreign observers have accused Bush of taking a unilateral approach to foreign crises. But the American president has said repeatedly that he has always consulted the country's friends and allies.
Bush also says he will consult Congress before taking any action against Iraq, which he says is a threat to the Middle East and the rest of the world because he has been developing weapons of mass destruction. Yesterday he took the first major step in that consultation, meeting with congressional leaders at the White House.
After that session, Bush promised to send top administration officials to testify before congressional committees, and said he would consult again with foreign leaders. "At the appropriate time, this administration will go to the Congress to seek approval necessary to deal with the threat. At the same time I will work with our friends in the world."
Bush plans to spend the coming weekend in meetings with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the presidential retreat in Camp David, near Washington. On 12 September, he says, he will personally outline his intentions to the world when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York. "I'm going to call upon the world to recognize that he is stiffing the world, and I will talk about ways to make sure that he fulfills his obligations." However, he did not say whether he would issue an ultimatum to Iraq during his UN speech.
Meanwhile, Bush's first responsibility is to win the approval of the American people through their representatives in Congress. Bush's preliminary meeting with congressional leaders included the chairmen of the Intelligence, Armed Services, and International Relations committees, panels that focus on the issues directly related to Iraq.
After their White House meeting with Bush yesterday, the congressional leaders said they expect to vote within the next two months on a nonbinding resolution on how to deal with Iraq.
But Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), the Senate majority leader, made it clear that he does not necessarily expect Congress will vote in favor of making war on Iraq. "I would say that it would not be my assumption that the military course is the only action available to him today."
In fact, Bush himself has said war is not his only option. He says he and his cabinet members are considering diplomatic and economic pressure as ways to force Saddam from power. Bush and his top aides have said repeatedly that he has not yet made up his mind which option he might take. Yesterday Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, repeated that.
But war is the subject on the minds of most observers, and many political leaders within the United States and abroad say Bush should press harder for a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq before considering any military action. The UN withdrew the inspectors in 1998 in advance of U.S. and British bombings of suspected weapons sites in Iraq. Since then, Saddam has refused to readmit them.
Speaking after yesterday's meeting with congressional leaders, Bush said the return of the inspectors is beside the point: "The issue is not inspectors. The issue is disarmament. This is a man who said he would not arm up. This is a man who told the world that he would not harbor weapons of mass destruction. That's the primary issue."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked later about Bush's statement. He said the president want Saddam to let the inspectors return, but that the issue goes beyond mere inspections. "Iraq needs to live up to its commitments to disarm, not simply allow inspectors, not to resume the cat-and-mouse game, not to put people in there in harm's way, where Saddam Hussein would again use the powers of his state police to rough up inspectors and make their job impossible to do. The purpose is for the world to know that Saddam Hussein has live up to his commitments and has disarmed. After all, if the world doesn't know if he's disarmed, how can the world know if it's safe? The burden is on Saddam Hussein, not on the United States."
Until now, the Bush administration has said little about how it plans to deal with Iraq, other than to state that Saddam must be removed. And at times, Bush's top aides have given contradictory statements. Daschle, the Senate majority leader, said Congress would be grateful if the administration could give it a single, coherent outline of its goals and the methods it would use to reach them: "With regard to Iraq, I think that what we heard today was the hope that the president can make clearer the case for our actions in Iraq, clear with regard to what the threat is to the United States and to the world community, clear as to the regime change and to whom it would turn, should the regime no longer be a viable one, what else we would do logistically to insure our success and whether we can enjoy broader base supporting international community than exists today."
Bush also sent his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to the Capitol yesterday to brief congressional leaders. Rumsfeld made no public remarks following the closed-door meeting.