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U.S.: Will Bush's Hard Line Intimidate Iraq Or Alienate Allies?

The United States says war with Iraq is the last -- not the first -- choice in dealing with Saddam Hussein. But President George W. Bush also says the best way to avoid war and, at the same time, to disarm Iraq is maintaining a credible threat of force. Analysts say this means Bush runs the risk of appearing to be a warmonger.

Washington, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says the only way to avoid war with Iraq is to put enormous pressure on its president, Saddam Hussein, to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.

This pressure has been brought in the form of military deployments in the Gulf region and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Bush and even his senior diplomat, Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Such pressure may eventually succeed in persuading Hussein to disarm or to step down, although it has not done so yet. But it also might give the impression, justified or not, that Bush is eager for war. Some observers believe it would be difficult for any American president to maintain such pressure without appearing gratuitously belligerent.

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington. He says the Iraq situation is inherently difficult. He tells RFE/RL that this stems from the U.S. policy of regime change in Iraq -- a policy that began during the preceding administration of President Bill Clinton -- which favors Hussein's ouster under any circumstances.

Brown says this policy has very little support from foreign governments, even those of European allies. Therefore, he says, Bush decided to act through the United Nations.

Bush persuaded the Security Council to pass Resolution 1441. But the resolution, which calls for only unspecified "serious consequences" if Iraq does not cooperate fully with UN weapons inspectors, is not exactly what Bush wanted. Now, Brown says, Bush is left with only two options:

"I think that leaves him basically with the option of either going it alone or trying to make a case based only on inspections. And perhaps that's possible, but it's a little more difficult."

So far, according to chief UN inspector Hans Blix, there is evidence that Hussein has much to hide, and yet his inspectors have found little evidence that Iraq is still developing weapons of mass destruction. This evidence so far may not be convincing enough to justify military action.

On the other hand, acting unilaterally also may alienate American allies, just as Bush angered them by refusing to ratify the Kyoto Treaty on the environment and withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that was signed by Washington and Moscow three decades ago.

For months, many skeptics both in the United States and abroad have urged Bush to declassify intelligence reports to support his assertion that Iraq poses a threat, not just to the Middle East but also to the world at large. Until now, Bush and his top aides have refused to do so, saying they do not want to compromise sources and methods of intelligence.

But now the Bush administration is reportedly ready to release some of this information that is supposed to show that Iraq has been hiding weapons of mass destruction and that it has links to Al-Qaeda.

If such evidence were convincing, would it eliminate the last resistance to Bush's campaign against Iraq? Or would it be perceived as yet a slap at his critics and alienate them even further?

Brown says it may do neither.

"An awful lot of intelligence information is murky and subject to multiple interpretation," Brown said. "The question is not whether it would make the French or the Germans angry if it turned out they were wrong -- they might be a little bit sheepish -- but whether they'll accept they were wrong, whether this will be evidence that will be so compelling that it will turn them around."

Another observer, Larry Sabato, says Bush should not be concerned about what he calls the "skittishness," or anxiety, of either the American people or European allies because of his uncompromising threats of war. Sabato says prewar anxiety is nothing new.

"People are getting skittish, but they're getting skittish because war is near," Sabato said. "That's been the history of war-making: As the war approaches, people get worried about the costs, especially in terms of blood, but also in terms of materiel and money. So there's nothing unusual happening here."

As for European allies -- specifically France and Germany, which so far oppose any military action against Iraq -- Sabato says he does not believe that Bush's hard-line stance is responsible for their opposition to war. He says these two countries, along with other allies who oppose imminent war, have taken these positions based on their own needs: "France and Germany are acting in their national interests, just as we [the United States] are acting in ours. It's very unlikely that our national interest will coincide with theirs for this war. France and Germany have a choice: They can either actively oppose the U.S. or remain relatively silent -- quietly opposing. That's their choice."

Similarly, Sabato says, it is irrelevant whether France and Germany or other U.S. allies somehow take offense at a release of intelligence material that might show that Bush was right all along, and that his critics were wrong.

According to Sabato, in a war like the one that may be waged against Iraq, Washington needs no help.

"Well, it would be preferable to have a completely united front, but we're very unlikely to have that in this war," he said. "The guess is, given the state of Saddam Hussein's army, we'll be able to win it [a war] fairly quickly. And so we're not as dependent on allies as perhaps we were in 1991, when Saddam Hussein's army -- and allies -- were stronger."

Sabato says that perhaps after such a war -- if the Middle East becomes more stable and Western commerce with Iraq becomes more reliable and lucrative -- the European allies who now oppose the idea of the military option may change their minds.