Iraq: Can Bush Close the Deal?

His State of the Union will address a world opposed to an attack

It opens to cheers and bipartisan backslapping. All too often, though, a State of the Union address lapses into a mind-numbing recitation of a President's real or imagined accomplishments. But if you're planning to tune in to George W. Bush's annual report to the nation on Jan. 28, banish all thoughts of a dreary script. Far from the usual laundry list, this speech is shaping up as one of the pivotal moments of Bush's Presidency--a crucial chance to make the case for war against Iraq amid growing public doubts.

Although Bush will talk up his domestic agenda, the focus of his remarks will be Saddam Hussein. Despite his reputation as a savvy salesman, the President is having a tough time convincing the world of the need for immediate military action. In fact, support is ebbing, in part because of Allied appeals to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time. But such a delay is not without consequences for the weak U.S. economy. Business executives insist that indecision over Iraq is leading them to put off investment and hiring.

Seldom have the stakes been higher for an American leader. "The State of the Union gives a President a huge audience," says former Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein. "He has to lead, inspire, and sell people on the notion that Saddam requires action now--and U.S. troops on the ground for a long time afterwards."

Still, the polls signal danger. "Bush faces a crisis of public opinion," says pollster John Zogby. In a Jan. 8-12 Pew Research Center survey, only 42% of respondents said the President had clearly explained why military force may be necessary, down from 52% in September. "Selling this policy is an enormous challenge," says a Bush adviser. "We always knew there would be some dissolution of support." The White House hopes to turn the tide with a stirring Bush speech followed by weeks of stumping in the heartland. The goal: Turn attention from the U.N.'s weapons hunt to the idea that Iraq's 11-year pattern of deception is a trigger-point for intervention. "Keep in mind that the inspectors are not in the country on a scavenger hunt for weapons," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said on Jan. 21. "They are there to confirm that Iraq has destroyed... the weapons that we know exist." That's the message the Administration will be broadcasting as part of its drive to shift the burden of proof back onto Iraq.

Just a day before Bush's speech, on Jan. 27, chief U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix is slated to deliver a potentially damning report on Iraq's cooperation with Security Council demands to disarm. But rather than heed Blix's call for months of further inspections, Bush & Co. view the report's likely reference to Iraqi deception as a sufficient cause for action.

The President's drive for support has been vastly complicated by antiwar sentiment, especially in Europe. France and Germany, backed by Russia and China, insist that Bush needs a second U.N. vote before using force. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America's strongest ally, prefers, but will not likely demand, a second vote. "What is very clear from all of our polls is a profound distrust of Washington--and Bush in particular," says Peter Kellner, chairman of London-based pollster YouGov Ltd.

Also weighing heavily on the White House is a war's impact on the economy. With forecasters scaling back growth estimates for the fourth quarter of 2002 to the 0.5%-or-less range, the drag on investment can't be dismissed. In a Jan. 21 meeting with economists, Bush conceded that war jitters were hurting growth--which he views as another reason to get on with it.

Many business leaders agree. Continued uncertainty "will paralyze capital markets," frets Allegiance Telecom CEO Royce J. Holland. "That's worse than bad [economic] news." Even if the Pentagon's scenario of a quick war--say, four months or less--pans out, the short-run effects won't be pretty. Oil prices, already $34 a barrel, could gyrate and global markets sink in the first weeks of the battle. And consumers could curb purchases as the nation stays home, glued to TV sets.

"People say: `Gosh, you're a defense company--war with Iraq must be good for you,"' says Boeing (BA ) Chairman and CEO Philip M. Condit. "War is not good for us. Clearly, it would have a negative impact on commercial air travel."

Just the anticipation of war is hurting some businesses. Daniel R. DiMicco, CEO of steelmaker Nucor Corp. (NUE ), says commercial builders cite war fears in delaying new orders. "The best thing would be to get this over with one way or another," he says.

In reality, the idea that war worries are undermining the economy is overstated. A string of other woes is retarding growth, among them overcapacity in tech and telecom, a whiff of deflation (page 37), and a weak global economy. "If you could magically remove Iraq [as a factor], you might get an initial spurt," says Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group. But that's "no magic elixir."

Still, with so much riding on the outcome of his anti-Saddam campaign, the President clearly has his work cut out for him. Yet even backers of the Bush policy say that up to now, he has struggled to make his case. The President has been "diverted by the economic situation and his tax-cut proposal," says hawkish Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). "He has to refocus."

Buoyed by his skillful Nov. 8 drive to win U.N. approval for Iraqi disarmament, Bush thought that international support would quiet his domestic critics. Now, he finds himself bogged down in a Security Council dominated by war foes. That's why Bush reserves the right to order an invasion at a time of his own choosing. In the best case, the U.S. would lead a "coalition of the willing" that storms Iraq within the next few months. In the worst, it would largely go it alone, using the veneer of NATO cooperation and access to Mideast military bases as proof of Allied assent.

Some of Iraq's neighbors are convinced that Bush is dead serious. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other nations have launched urgent initiatives to persuade Saddam to go into exile or, failing that, incite a coup against him. As war clouds gather, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are shuttling to foreign capitals to head off a U.S. attack--or at least show their people that they're trying to avoid Western intervention.

"The regime is not good for the Iraqi people or for the area," a Saudi royal family adviser says. "It's a question of convincing others around [Saddam] to take action. You hope someone in Iraq is listening."

With more than 150,000 U.S. troops and four carrier battle groups converging on the Persian Gulf, and hot weather fast approaching, Bush has little time left for persuasion. Yet foreign policy experts say that in the days that remain, he needs to marshal his arguments.

For starters, many diplomats believe the White House must shed its reluctance to share intelligence with U.N. search teams. "There is a constant struggle within the Administration over how much you reveal," says former Bush State Dept. official Jon B. Alterman. "Do you protect your sources and make a weaker case or blow your sources and make a stronger one?"

GOP strategists are convinced that over the next few weeks, the spooks will lose this argument, and Bush will begin releasing spy data about Iraq's weapons program. Using this material, the President will try to build a damning case against Saddam.

Next, Bush must explain why waiting longer is a fool's game. The argument: It strengthens Saddam's hand, since the longer U.N. inspections drag on, the more Bush's war consensus frays.

Another difficult chore for Bush is outlining his vision for a post-Saddam Iraq. In theory, transitional military rule is supposed to give way to a coalition government of democratically inclined leaders, making a liberated Iraq a beacon of democracy for other Arab regimes.

But skeptics abound. Former Colorado Democratic Senator Gary Hart says Bush must answer two big questions: How long would the U.S. maintain a military presence in Iraq, and how much could it cost? After the Afghan campaign, for instance, noncombatant nations pledged $5.2 billion for reconstruction, but Kabul complains it's not enough. Today, opposition to the Iraqi intervention is so strong that assembling an aid network could prove even more daunting. One big plus: Iraq's vast oil reserves, which could help pay for postwar rebuilding.

Because he must speak to so many audiences in so many far-flung locales, the chore Bush faces on Jan. 28 is immense. Thus far, the President has managed to persuade the international community of little save his clenched-jaw conviction that civilized nations must rid themselves of the scourge of Saddam. But is the Bush Doctrine a coherent step toward peace, or the final act of a family vendetta? Will the intervention make the world safer from terrorism, or incite thousands of new fanatics to enlist in a jihad? To date, Bush has not managed to put these questions to rest. And, as he likes to say as the hour of decision nears, "time is running out."

By Paula Dwyer, Lee Walczak, Richard S. Dunham, and Stan Crock in Washington, with Michael Arndt in Chicago, Stanley Reed in London, and bureau reports

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