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U.S.: Analysts Skeptical As Bush Signals Softening Of Iraqi 'Regime Change' Policy

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush, struggling to overcome the resistance of U.S. allies skeptical of his policy toward Baghdad, appears to have signaled a major policy shift toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But analysts say Bush's apparent softening on Saddam is likely just diplomatic posturing as Washington seeks to persuade skeptics on the UN Security Council to pass a new resolution calling for Iraq to disarm or face "consequences." RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports from Washington.

Washington, 22 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Has the Bush administration dropped its "regime change" policy on Iraq?

U.S. President George W. Bush appeared to signal a major policy shift toward Baghdad in comments yesterday, saying in effect that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could remain in power -- provided he abides by all United Nations conditions on ridding his country of weapons of mass destruction.

Official U.S. policy since Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998 under former President Bill Clinton has been for "regime change" in Baghdad -- that is, to support efforts to remove Saddam from power and promote the emergence of a democratic government in Baghdad.

Bush, speaking as skeptical allies on the UN Security Council debated a U.S.-proposed resolution to force Iraq to disarm, said he doesn't think Saddam will ever change. But he also said the world may be able to disarm Saddam peacefully and that, in effect, there is more than one way to define the term "regime change":

"If [Saddam] were to meet all the conditions of the United Nations -- conditions that I've described very clearly in terms that everybody can understand -- that in itself will signal the regime has changed."

The comments are significant, considering the Bush administration has long said that removing Saddam from power is as important as disarming Iraq.

It also is believed to reflect the position of Secretary of State Colin Powell, a moderate in the administration who is striving for a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi problem. Last weekend, Powell also suggested on U.S. television that Saddam could stay in power if he complies with the UN.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL all say they believe the Bush administration is simply adopting a more conciliatory posture in order to win over skeptical allies on the UN Security Council.

As Bush spoke, the U.S. distributed a proposed resolution on Iraq to the permanent members of the Security Council. The draft resolution, revised from previous versions, would toughen weapons inspections in Iraq and calls for unspecified "consequences" if Baghdad does not comply.

Russia and France have resisted previous U.S. attempts to pass a tough resolution that would authorize force if Saddam does not fully cooperate. Neither country is seen as rushing to embrace the new U.S. proposal.

Two analysts say Bush's new approach may amount to a minor shift in U.S. policy, signaling that Powell's moderate stance -- for the moment, at least -- has won out over the more aggressive positions of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Ted Galen Carpenter is an analyst with the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. Carpenter says "regime change" may, in fact, not be indispensable to U.S. policy. Still, Carpenter says Bush's new language may be no more than a "tactical ploy" to win over French and Russian resistance at the UN.:

"He's [Bush] ultraconfident that Saddam Hussein is not going to fully comply with the UN inspections, and therefore we'll be able to use military force in any case. He's just trying to position himself as being much more reasonable than what some of his critics, particularly the European critics, have said."

Raymond Tanter is a professor at the University of Michigan and a fellow at the Washington Institute, a think tank. Tanter says that since France and Russia do not agree on regime change, the Bush team is desperate to sell them on the idea of at least disarming Iraq: "The American position has been repackaged for marketing purposes."

Still, Tanter says there has been a shift within the administration toward Powell's position. And even if it proves to be a temporary, tactical change, not all administration officials are happy with it: "I'm sure that [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld was not very excited about this particular nuance. But the fundamental position of the United States is that the weapons of mass destruction must go. It's inconceivable to imagine that [Saddam] would voluntarily give up those weapons of mass destruction."

Ken Allard, a former U.S. Army colonel, is an analyst on U.S. television and a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. He says he has no doubts that the new U.S. rhetoric is related to American diplomat efforts and that he does not take it as the Bush administration's true position. Allard says it is more important to watch what the administration does, not what it says: "Watch what they do. The forces that are there -- that is by far the most interesting thing that is going on right now."

Allard is referring to U.S. media reports over the weekend that Bush has authorized the combat training of some 5,000 opponents of the Iraqi government. The reports say another 5,000 will be trained as spotters for targets of U.S. precision-guided missiles, language interpreters, and military police in a war-preparedness program that will cost more than $90 million.

Bush's directive, signed on 3 October, is just the latest in a series of steps to ready the terrain for war. Others have included stockpiling military equipment in Persian Gulf states, dispatching combat troops to the area and ordering the transfer of the staff of the U.S. Central Command to the region.

And last week, an Army task force of Apache helicopters left Europe for Kuwait as part of a gradual buildup of forces in the country that the U.S.-led coalition liberated after Iraq invaded in 1990.

Apache helicopters fired the opening shots of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991, destroying two radar installations in a strike that allowed hundreds of Air Force jets to move in on Iraq.

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