Bush promises to be patient in Iraq decision

Calls for caution spark comments after meeting

`Saddam Hussein is a threat'

President says advisers didn't discuss topic

August 22, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CRAWFORD, Texas -- President Bush said yesterday that he was open to nonmilitary ways of replacing Saddam Hussein as the leader of Iraq, but said he was a "patient man" who would take his time before determining how to proceed against Baghdad. Bush spoke after a meeting at his ranch with national security advisers at which, he said, the issue of Iraq had not come up.

"Regime change is in the interests of the world," Bush said, standing on a dusty road with his secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, at his side. "How we achieve that is a matter of consultation and deliberative -- deliberation," he said.

He added: "When I say I'm a patient man, I mean I'm a patient man and that we will look at all options and we will consider all technologies available to us, and diplomacy and intelligence. But one thing is for certain, is that this administration agrees that Saddam Hussein is a threat."

Bush repeatedly questioned the heightened interest focused on his meeting yesterday. When a reporter asked Bush if he was concerned that the United States might have to go it alone in a war against Hussein, the president responded: "Are you asking about Iraq? The subject didn't come up in this meeting."

He added: "I know there's this kind of intense speculation that seems to be going on, a kind of a -- I don't know how you would describe it. It's kind of a churning."

At this point, Rumsfeld leaned into the microphone. "Frenzy," he said, as the president nodded approvingly.

Among those who flew in for the two-hour mid-vacation meeting, followed by lunch, were Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The meeting came in the midst of a summer in which senior members of Bush's administration have been increasingly making a case for ousting Hussein, and suggesting such a move was likely.

Some domestic leaders, including a few from Bush's own party, and a range of foreign allies have raised cautions.

Although the president and Rumsfeld said after the Crawford session that war planning for Iraq was not a subject of their meeting, Rumsfeld later told a large and enthusiastic gathering of Army troops at nearby Fort Hood, Texas, that the issue is clearly on the mind of the nation's commander in chief.

Asked by a private first class from Rumsfeld's hometown of Chicago whether America's ties with Russia would be affected by an offensive against Baghdad, Rumsfeld said, "The president has made no such decision that we should go into a war with Iraq."

With a chuckle, Rumsfeld then added, "He's thinking about it," which brought laughter and murmuring from the soldiers.

In Houston yesterday, a senior congressional Republican, Tom DeLay, the House majority whip, described Hussein as a growing threat to U.S. security, and declared that the United States must attack him, "the sooner, the better."

Friday, Bush said that he would listen carefully to Republicans who oppose U.S. intervention in Iraq, and said he would make up his mind based "upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our country."

White House aides expressed concern yesterday about the growing speculation over what Bush might do about Iraq and when, and the suggestions of divisions in the Republican Party over Bush's plans for Baghdad. His remarks yesterday seemed intended to emphasize that any action would come after careful deliberation.

Bush and his advisers said the meeting was spent discussing a range of Pentagon business, from the future of missile defense to an analysis of budgets and weapons procurement to accelerating contingency planning by regional war-fighting commanders.

A similar session on budgets and strategy was held one year ago, also at Crawford.

Bush said much of the time yesterday was spent talking about missile defense, and about what he described as the "impressive" progress made since the American withdrawal from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

A Pentagon official said after the meeting that Bush was given "a routine update on the missile defense development program," and that no decisions were made.

Rumsfeld said the final form of an American anti-missile system is "not knowable," but said the Pentagon would be testing a layered defense that targets enemy missiles as they are launched, in midflight and as they approach their targets.

Bush and his advisers also discussed Pentagon spending over the next five years, including which weapons systems would best meet emerging threats.

A number of new, big-ticket weapons programs funded in the current military spending bill may have to be curtailed or even killed; among those under scrutiny are the Army's Comanche helicopter, the Air Force's F-22 jet fighter and the Marine Corps V-22 troop transport.

The meeting also included a discussion of how the individual armed services can plan procurement and structure their forces with greater consideration that, in future battles, they will fight together in a joint environment.

The meeting began about 9 a.m. at the main house on Bush's ranch here. At 11:30 a.m., Bush, driving a Ford 250 pick-up, pulled up to his outdoor news conference. His passengers included Rumsfeld, the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, and a Secret Service agent. Cheney did not appear in public here yesterday.

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