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U.S.: As Opposition To War Rises, Washington Steps Up Battle For Opinion On Iraq

  • Jeffrey Donovan

With opposition to a war with Iraq growing at home and abroad, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has launched a media blitz to make the case that only military force can vanquish the threat of Saddam Hussein.

Washington, 22 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European critics of U.S. President George W. Bush often compare him to a lonely cowboy from the Wild West bent on serving up his brand of justice, regardless of what the rest of the world may think.

Legendary American actor Gary Cooper won an Oscar for playing just such a cowboy: a tough lawman who alone stops a murderer after none of his fellow citizens will back him up in the 1952 film "High Noon."

In the rhetoric of today's Washington, Cooper had to "go it alone."

Bush, over the past several months, has repeatedly threatened to do the same thing with Iraq, should the United Nations Security Council withhold support for the use of military action to disarm Saddam Hussein if it is decided Iraq failed to comply with UN weapons inspectors.

Bush, whose war rhetoric is intensifying almost daily while world and domestic opposition to any conflict grows, may have to follow Cooper's example.

Yesterday, Bush again made it clear that, if necessary, the United States will act on its own with a "coalition of the willing" to oust Hussein. Bush, using his own movie metaphor, reiterated that Iraq is not cooperating with the inspectors and that Hussein has been given plenty of time to disarm but has not done so. "It appears to be a rerun of a bad movie," Bush said. "He [Hussein] is delaying. He's deceiving. He's asking for time. He's playing hide-and-seek with inspectors. One thing is for certain: He's not disarming."

Bush's comments were part of a media blitz on Iraq begun this week by his administration in an apparent bid to make the case to the U.S. and international public that war is the only solution to the showdown with Iraq, which Washington accuses of harboring weapons of mass destruction.

The offensive comes after France, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, told Washington it would not back an attack on Iraq in the coming weeks. Diplomats reportedly said that position is shared by most Security Council members.

But following a weekend in which hundreds of thousands of people rallied in cities around the world against any war with Baghdad, and amid recent public-opinion polls that show support for war in the United States and Britain is flagging, the Bush administration has begun to press its case that only military force can stop Hussein.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is set to address Iraqi disarmament at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York tomorrow. And Bush is expected to tackle the issue during his annual State of the Union address next week.

Yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage added his voice to the fray, saying that peaceful options on Iraq appear to have run out. "Our other options are just about exhausted at this point. This [Iraqi] regime has very little time left to undo the legacy of 12 years. There is no sign -- there is not one sign that the regime has any intent to comply fully with the terms of [UN Security Council] Resolution 1441," Armitage said.

To strengthen Washington's case, Armitage issued a 32-page document outlining what it calls the "apparatus of lies" engineered by Iraq. He said Iraq has failed to account for tens of thousands of empty chemical warheads and hundreds of artillery shells filled with mustard gas, as well as hundreds of biological weapons.

The White House also announced yesterday that Bush has established an Office of Global Communications aimed at improving the United States' image abroad and explaining U.S. policy.

As U.S. official rhetoric escalated, so too did military preparations. Defense officials say the Pentagon has ordered two more U.S. aircraft carriers and 37,000 more combat troops to deploy to the Persian Gulf region for a possible war. Altogether, the United States will have four aircraft carriers and more than 100,000 troops in the region by mid-February.

Washington is emphasizing that a final report to the Security Council on 27 January by the inspectors will mark the end phase in judging whether Iraq has complied with the UN.

But public opinion both at home and abroad is reluctant to embrace war with Iraq. A recent poll in Britain, the United States' top ally on Iraq, found that 77 percent of Britons are against war without UN backing, an increase from 70 percent last September.

In the United States, public support for war also appears to be waning. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center in Washington showed that only 42 percent of Americans -- 10 percent less than in the autumn -- believe that Bush has clearly made the case for war against Iraq. And while 68 percent said they back war, only 26 percent said they support unilateral U.S. military action.

More generally, a separate Gallup Poll yesterday found that only 42 percent of Americans are satisfied with how things are going in the country, down from 70 percent one year ago. Their biggest worries are war with Iraq and the slumping economy.

In some of the strongest Democratic criticism of Bush since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Senator Edward Kennedy yesterday accused Bush of failing to respect U.S. allies and said the nuclear crisis with North Korea and the war on terrorism should be the United States' focus.

Echoing Bush's European critics, Kennedy said UN weapons inspectors should be given a chance and that the United States should stop bullying its friends and allies to follow Washington at any cost. "A 'my-way-or-the-highway' policy makes all our goals in the world more difficult to achieve," Kennedy said.

So, against such opposition, can Bush conceivably still "go it alone"?

James Lindsay is an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. Lindsay said the administration would look weak abroad and lose credibility if it decides not to follow through on months of tough talk by using force against Hussein.

Moreover, he believes that, despite the opposition of France and other allies, a deal may yet be in the works among key members of the UN Security Council. "This is the $64,000 question: What is the real bottom line for Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and also for Berlin? I think that in these things, what the French have indicated in their recent remarks is that they haven't ruled out war with Baghdad, and if they haven't ruled out war with Baghdad, what that means is that there is a deal to be had," Lindsay said.

If that's the case, then Bush may be able to leave what his French critics consider his cowboy-style heroics in Hollywood.