QUIETLY and persistently, the Clinton administration has tried to dissuade Pope John Paul II from making a planned pilgrimage to a religious site in Iraq later this year, to no avail.
Under the personal direction of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the United States has been trying to shame the pope out of visiting Ur in the Mesopotamian desert, where the patriarch Abraham was born, as part of millennium celebrations.
Washington worries that the pope will be "manipulated" by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and that his brief stay there will "legitimize" the dictator. The Vatican finds this worry absurd and insulting to the pope, who, say Holy See officials, is sufficiently sophisticated and experienced in diplomacy to avoid being "used" by Hussein.
The administration also fears that the pope's presence in Iraq, planned for early December, will undermine the U.S. and U.N. policy of economic sanctions against Hussein. The pope opposes all such sanctions. Vatican officials insist this is an unfounded fear, too, because the pope has no intention of speaking about sanctions or any other aspect of Iraq's political life while in the country.
Both sides have kept this diplomatic confrontation private. Washington doesn't want to be caught attempting to pressure the pope. The Holy See has been equally silent, not desiring to embarrass the Clinton administration by going public with the dispute.
But this isn't the first time that a U.S. administration has sought to influence the pope's behavior and activities. In September 1982, the United States protested, unsuccessfully, the pontiff's decision to receive then-Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The pope reasoned, correctly, it turns out, that contacts with Mr. Arafat might hasten peace in the Middle East.
The pope's trip to Cuba and meeting with Fidel Castro in January came despite another U.S. effort to change the pope's mind.
When it comes to the Iraqi problem, Washington, so far, has repeated the error of underestimating the pope's determination to achieve what he sets out to do.
When Ms. Albright learned of the pope's trip, during a meeting in March with the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, she reacted with what officials described as "shock." She immediately criticized the trip, emphasizing that Hussein's human rights violations should not be rewarded with a pontifical visit. Archbishop Tauran countered that the pope would make it clear to Hussein that he was coming on a purely religious pilgrimage, would spend minimal time at the Baghdad airport in connection with helicopter flights to Ur, and would engage in no politics or diplomacy.
Archbishop Tauran acknowledged that if Hussein attempted to greet the pope, as one head of state to another, the pontiff obviously would not turn his back as a matter of politeness. These assurances, however, did not satisfy Ms. Albright.
A special U.S. briefing team was subsequently dispatched to the Vatican to apprise senior Holy See officials of Hussein's violations of human rights and religious freedoms, as well as with intelligence on Iraqi nuclear arms and chemical and bacterial weapons. Vatican officials responded that they were familiar with this material through their own diplomatic and intelligence channels.
Recently, the State Department released a special report charging that Hussein was using his oil dollars to construct a lavish resort for his top supporters at Saddamiat al Tharthar, west of Baghdad, instead of feeding his starving people.
In defending the pope's commitment to human rights, a Vatican official pointed out that the pontiff was the first and thus far the only world leader to visit East Timor. The pope's visit took place in 1989, 10 years before East Timor's Aug. 30 vote on separation from Indonesia. It should be recalled that when President Clinton journeyed to Indonesia, he did not request to be taken to East Timor, where the Suharto regime was guilty of widespread rights violations.
The Vatican official suggested gently that "people who live in glass houses should not throw stones."
Tad Szulc is the author of "John Paul II: The Biography." This is an excerpt of a longer article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.