Why Bush Is in a Rush to Boot Saddam

While his critics fear to act, behind the President's urgency -- right or wrong -- is a fear of not acting, thanks to September 11

By Stan Crock

For an Administration suspicious of international organizations, the Bush team has shown amazing skill at using the U.N. to its advantage. President Bush's Sept. 12 address to the General Assembly shrewdly laid out Iraq's challenge to the institution's credibility and effectiveness. Secretary of State Colin Powell later engineered a unanimous Security Council resolution insisting that Baghdad disarm.

Powell returned to the U.N. on Feb. 5 with a powerful multimedia presentation that included intercepts of conversations between Iraqi military officials, aerial photos of suspected weapons sites, and careful explanations of both unaccounted-for chemical, biological, and nuclear-weapons programs, and Iraq's ties to terrorists. Powell's theme: Saddam Hussein has woven a "web of lies." And he made a strong case, by most accounts.

Even as Saddam's skill at deception is unmasked, however, the world probably won't know before an invasion exactly what unconventional arms he has. That means the decision whether to go in remains a judgment call. And the Bush Administration has a different way of making those judgments -- one of many new ways of thinking designed to break the mold previous Administrations had followed on conducting foreign policy.

NEGATIVE JUSTIFICATIONS.

  From its hard line on Iraq and distaste for a 1994 accord with North Korea to junking the Middle East peace framework and arms-control pacts, this Administration has developed a clear pattern, even if it's unsettling to the rest of the world. "They throw out something that seems just outrageous and revolutionary," says Thomas Donnelly, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Then they push Colin Powell to the front to try to achieve the goal through traditional diplomatic means." It's akin to flame-throwing on the world stage, but it moves policy forward, Donnelly argues.

In making judgments on the urgency of attacking Iraq now, consider how differently the Administration looks at Iraq, compared with how U.S. allies and domestic war critics view it. The naysayers are focused on the risks of action. But Bush & Co. is trying to turn the discussion toward the risks of not acting. And the most difficult part of the judgment call is weighing what is known vs. what isn't.

After all, Washington didn't know North Korea had a three-stage rocket until the Koreans launched it near Japan. Washington was surprised by India's nuclear test several years ago. Administration officials believe that Iran could develop a nuclear bomb in five years, but they don't know -- and won't know -- when and if Iran makes that fateful decision. Most chilling, the nation's leaders didn't know about the attacks of September 11. "The horror of 9/11 has changed the risk calculus," says David Kay, a former chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.

OVERSEAS OUTCRY.

  All of this helps explain why the Bush team is so intent on depriving Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction. Saddam has demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons in the past. Will he again? Bush doesn't want to be blindsided by another unknowable calamity. That's why traditional containment and deterrence notions don't satisfy him.

Bush alluded to his new thinking in a press conference during his Jan. 31 meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "The strategic view of America changed after September the 11th," Bush declared. "We must deal with threats before they hurt the American people again." A perceived threat, multiplied by a high risk quotient for inaction, equals urgency in this Administration's eyes.

The threat assessment isn't the only break with the past in Iraq policy. In Bush's State of the Union address a year ago, he labeled Iraq part of an "Axis of Evil," an inflammatory and controversial phrase notably missing in this year's speech. He followed up with a National Security Strategy, which argued for preemptive strikes, and his Nuclear Posture Review, which considered use of nuclear weapons a viable option. Both amounted to sea changes in U.S. strategy -- and caused furor overseas.

STRATEGIC SHIFT.

  At the same time, divisions within the Administration gave the impression that Iraq policy was incoherent. In August, Vice-President Dick Cheney gave a speech trashing the value of inspections. But after Powell's intervention, an inspection regime suddenly became U.S. policy.

These inspections were another policy departure. In October, Bush laid out an agenda designed to avoid the cat-and-mouse games of the past. "The Iraqi regime must reveal and destroy, under U.N. supervision, all existing weapons of mass destruction," he declared.

In retrospect, this was quite a shift in Administration tactics. After months of calling for Saddam's ouster, Bush seemed to be taking a quieter approach, telling Iraq to change its behavior by coming forward with its arms and publicly demolishing them. But this seems to have been strategic. In succeeding weeks, Administration officials explained privately that Iraq's failure to alter its conduct would be evident quickly, thus avoiding a drawn-out inspection process. And based on Saddam's track record, they were highly doubtful he would comply with the new rules. By Stan Crock

HANGING JUDGMENTS.

  The Nov. 8 U.N. resolution incorporated this new compliance idea, and strangely enough, the internal divisions in Washington might have helped seal international approval. The prospect that hawks like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would push a unilateral U.S. move on Baghdad gave "doves" like Powell leverage in the Security Council, which didn't want to appear irrelevant. In turn, Powell's success in the U.N. could help the hawks by bringing in allies, if it comes to war.

The new compliance standard, however, never registered with the public, as the focus turned immediately to a fierce debate over whether a second resolution would be needed before military action. Powell repeatedly insisted that Iraqi cooperation was a must. But it sounded like little more than insistence that the Iraqis not block the doorways.

Then came the search for a smoking gun, a rhetorical trap for the Administration that Powell seems to have inadvertently fallen into when he said on ABC's Nightline on Nov. 12, "We will have to make a judgment based on, first, if the inspectors get in, what they find or don't find." From then on, the smoking gun was viewed as the benchmark for judging Iraq. "Nowadays we need evidence before we hang someone," said Hubertus Heemskerk, CEO of Dutch banking giant Rabobank Group, at the January World Economic Forum in Davos. Heemskerk's remark is quite typical of the European view to this day.

STIFF PRICE.

  The absence of such hard evidence has proven costly for the U.S. Bush is viewed abroad as an out-of-control cowboy, moving with unseemly haste toward combat. European and Islamic publics are increasingly suspicious of U.S. motives. That could prompt countries to be less cooperative on extradition of terrorist suspects, intelligence sharing, or the number of troops they provide for combat missions, says Joseph Nye Jr., dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

The single-minded focus on Baghdad has allowed dangerous problems to fester in North Korea, Kashmir, and West Bank. Pyongyang, for example, is about to put spent fuel rods, which can be used to make nuclear bombs, beyond the reach of weapons inspectors and the kind of air strike the Clinton Administration planned but abandoned in 1994 in favor of diplomatic engagement. "That's an enormous setback for the U.S. and its policy of keeping the worst weapons out of the hands of the worst people," worries David Rothkopf, CEO and chairman of Intellibridge, a Washington (D.C.) consulting firm.

What's more, the Administration's stance is putting Bush's staunchest ally, Britain's Tony Blair, at political risk. His government could fall if he joins a U.S. attack without U.N. approval. "I see remarkably little awareness in the Bush Administration of the price they have paid," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Clawson is a hardliner on Iraq who thinks Bush should have moved sooner.

"ONE GOOD CHANCE."

  There's a method to the Administration approach, however. They delayed making their case to give U.S. troops a breather after Afghanistan. They were confident -- to the point of arrogance, perhaps -- that they could muscle their policy through when the right time came.

"You have one good chance to make the case," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, who recently left the State Dept. "You want to make it when you want to make it, not dribble it out and dilute the impact."Powell's Feb. 5 presentation may have laid the foundation for a new U.N. resolution. It's not required under the previous resolution, but it could provide political cover for wavering countries. The U.N. need not authorize military intervention, but simply state that Iraq is in material breach of previous resolutions -- something not even French officials would contest.

In the end, the President may not persuade the world that his judgment is right, just that he's determined. That may be enough. Foreign leaders "have come to the conclusion that if there's going to be a war, they want to be on the right side," says Arnold Kanter, a principal in Scowcroft Group, a Washington (D.C.) consulting firm. Despite foreign doubts about Washington's wisdom, no one questions its power -- and its ability to prevail militarily.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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