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Iraq: Bush Steps Up Anti-Saddam Campaign

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush is taking his case for Iraqi regime change to the world, starting with talks with the leaders of Britain, France, Russia and China and then in an address to the United Nations on 12 September. The shift from unilateralist rhetoric to international consultation suggests Bush may be embracing a more moderate position.

Washington, 6 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- War with Iraq may still be a way off -- if it comes at all -- but U.S. President George W. Bush has finally launched his own battle to persuade the American people and the international community of the need to act against Baghdad.

By some accounts, Bush faces an uphill, if not impossible battle. Many American lawmakers, European allies, and Arab leaders have voiced deep opposition to any military action against Iraq, especially the kind of unilateral preemptive strike that Vice President Dick Cheney has spoken of.

Yet by finding a compromise between the positions of Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who wants a return of United Nations weapons inspectors before any military action, analysts say that Bush may finally get his chance to strike Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- and with the world's blessing, too.

On 4 September, after weeks of criticism that he was not consulting adequately on Iraq with U.S. lawmakers or world leaders, Bush said he would take his case to the representatives of the American people in Congress, from which he would seek approval for any action against Iraq, and to the international community in a speech to the UN General Assembly on 12 September.

That address will come a day after the anniversary of the 11 September attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people and sparked the U.S. war on terrorism that now wants to target Saddam.

Before meeting with congressional leaders, Bush said that Baghdad has not complied since the end of the 1991 Gulf War with key agreements with the UN and Washington -- namely, that Iraq would cease to pursue or possess arms of mass destruction. "I'm going to call upon the world to recognize that he [Saddam] is stiffing the world, and I will talk about ways to make sure that he fulfills his obligations," he said.

Indeed, the case Bush will lay out to the UN will rest partly on a basic assertion: that by failing to enforce the UN resolutions that Saddam has long flaunted, the UN has not only let Iraq reconstitute its arms programs, but put its very credibility at stake.

Still, it appears the White House will need to make a stronger case to convince skeptics, who want clear evidence that Saddam is an imminent threat. Representative Henry Hyde, a Republican who heads the House International Relations Committee, says, "Everyone's looking for a smoking gun."

Lawmakers say that, so far, such a smoking gun has not been produced.

But does the White House have it? After top-secret talks on Iraq this week with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. lawmakers said he presented them with no significant new information. And on 5 September, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush believes the case he has already presented on Iraq is sufficient, in his words, "to require regime change."

Later the same day, in the Midwestern state of Kentucky, Bush repeated his usual charges. He said the world must remember that Saddam is developing weapons of mass destruction, has invaded Kuwait and Iran, and has used chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians.

The president said that in phone calls beginning on 6 September, he would seek to persuade the leaders of France, Russia, and China that they can no longer ignore such a threat. "I will remind them that history has called us into action," he said.

The support of those countries could be key. Along with Britain and the United States, France, Russia, and China are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Their approval is needed for any new UN resolution on Iraq because they have the power to veto any UN action.

The White House is unlikely to seek a new resolution, which might be considered to be restriction on U.S. policy by senior officials -- such as Cheney and Rumsfeld.

But media reports strongly suggest that France and Britain are closely working together on a draft resolution that would make a last demand on Iraq to accept immediate and unfettered arms inspections -- or else face some kind of action, presumably military.

In an interview last week with the BBC, Secretary of State Powell also expressed support for a last try at inspections. It is likely to be a key topic when British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- who supports Bush on Iraq -- holds talks with Bush on 7 September at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Raymond Tanter is a professor at the University of Michigan and an analyst at the Washington Institute, a think tank. Tanter says he believes Bush will compromise between the positions of Cheney and Powell, and that Blair could play a fundamental role in bridging that gap as well as the chasm on Iraq that appears to separate the U.S. from its allies in Europe. "If Blair prevails, it seems that that strengthens Powell's hands in the circle of the U.S. government," Tanter said.

That would mean "going through the UN," as they say in Washington, even if Tanter believes that Bush will ultimately retain the option of going it alone in Iraq.

Ted Galen Carpenter is an analyst at Washington's Cato Institute, a think tank. He says the United States can get what it wants -- and avoid alienating the world community -- by working with the UN. "Bush would not go to the Security Council unless he is confident of a favorable vote. And that means he has received some indication that Russia and China will do no more than abstain, that they won't veto any action," Carpenter said. "And I think he's confident that the U.S. can at least get a resolution that's broad enough to authorize force, if necessary."

However, the wording of any new UN resolution will be tricky. Baghdad wants all sanctions dropped it if complies with inspections. But Bush wants inspectors back in -- and Saddam out, regardless of whether he complies. "The policy of the United States is regime change, with or without inspectors," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on 4 September.

But Bush's critics say that such a stance makes dealing with Iraq, except for militarily, impossible. In an interview with "The New York Times" on 5 September, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said, "How can you exert pressure on someone by saying to them: 'Even if you accede to our demands, we will destroy you.'"

Nonetheless, new measures to exert pressure on Baghdad through inspections are being studied.

Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently released a report stating that while Saddam may be an objectionable leader, the only threat he poses is his program for weapons of mass destruction. And so once those programs are eliminated through inspections, the threat will be gone.

To achieve that goal, the report calls for "coercive inspections" whereby inspectors would be backed by a 50,000-strong international security force. If Iraq fails to comply, the report says, the UN forces would be authorized to invade Iraq but the United States would have to agree not to take military action on Baghdad as long as the inspectors are working.

The report was compiled by experts including Rolf Ekeus, the former chairman of the UN inspectors in Iraq, and retired Air Force General Charles Boyd, the former deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

But Charles Duelfer, the former vice chairman of the UN Iraqi inspectors, says the "coercive inspections" regime merely highlights what continues to divide Washington and the rest of the world -- namely, a differing assessment of the threat Saddam poses. "A lot of this depends on how you define the Iraq problem: Is it just a question of weapons of mass destruction, is it a question of getting weapons inspectors back in? Or is it a broader problem of this regime, with those resources," Duelfer asked.

Duelfer says that even stripped of his arms programs, the United States is unlikely to trust that Saddam -- who sits atop 10 percent of world oil resources -- will not begin them all over again.

For that reason, says the Washington Institute's Tanter, Bush may agree to some kind of tough, new, weapons inspections, but they may in the end -- through Baghdad's noncompliance -- provide a cause for war and lead to what the What House ultimately desires: Iraqi regime change.

Tanter says Bush's very credibility is now on the line. He compared the situation to early-1960s Cuba, where Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent nuclear missiles to target the United States after U.S. President John F. Kennedy declined to back an attempt by anticommunists to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro. "It's inconceivable to me that President Bush would not launch a war for the liberation of Iraq at this point. American prestige has been engaged; you can't walk the cat back at this point," Tanter said. "Too much talk has gone on and if you don't deliver with such a windup, then Saddam will think he's taken the measure of President Bush just as Khrushchev took the measure of President Kennedy and found him wanting after the Bay of Pigs fiasco."

The White House continues to say that it has not yet decided on military action -- even if Bush told reporters this week that, in his words, "Doing nothing is not an option."

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