Softer tone, same song

March 10, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In his news conference the other night, President Bush checked his cowboy hat at the door and, in subdued tone and manner, made another "final" pitch for U.N. and public support for his invasion of Iraq.

But the message was as firm as ever: Not only Iraq's weapons of mass destruction but also Saddam Hussein must go. That hasn't changed, in spite of the U.S. agreement the next day, apparently in deference to Britain, to a March 17 deadline for Iraq to fully disarm.

Once again, the president said "multiple intelligence sources" showed that the Iraqi dictator was continuing to develop such weapons, but once again he offered no new proof. Nor did he explain, beyond saying he had "good evidence," why Iraq is so imminent a threat to the United States that the U.N. inspections had to be cut off rather than let them go on in return for winning broader U.N. support.

Instead, he merely restated his justification for pre-emptive action absent any new U.N. Security Council resolution to attack. It's his job, he said, not only "to protect America" but also to "protect and defend the Constitution" - which, as we know, says Congress "shall have the power ... to declare war."

Again, the president observed that "the credibility of the Security Council is at stake" in the vote that now will be taken on the amended resolution clearing the way for military action to begin after March 17. That vote, he said, will demonstrate "the utility" of the council.

In all this, Mr. Bush sidestepped that the argument in the Security Council has been not that military action should never be taken but whether additional time should be given to the inspectors or further alternative approaches to disarmament should be considered first.

The president's idea of the Security Council proving its utility is for it to accept his way of dealing with Iraq, including ousting Saddam Hussein in the bargain, even though his prime ally, Britain, doesn't buy into his insistence on "regime change."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has pointedly observed that his country's objective is Iraqi disarmament, not regime change, and as far as the British are concerned Mr. Hussein can stay in power if he meets U.N. demands to disarm.

With this sort of basic breach in Mr. Bush's "coalition of the willing," it's understandable that he didn't want to delay taking military action that he said "will mean regime change." While saying "I want the United Nations to be effective" and "a robust, capable body," he noted "we really don't need the United Nations' approval" to act. "When it comes to our security," he emphasized, "we really don't need anybody's permission."

It can be reasonably asked, though, who was damaging the United Nations' credibility when the leader of one of its most important members was insisting on his own timetable to act. As for the inspectors and other foreigners in Iraq, Mr. Bush said considerately, "We will give people a chance to leave" before the invasion starts.

For all practical purposes, however, the war has already begun. Hundreds of daily U.S. and British sorties are being flown over the Iraqi no-fly zones, and various Iraqi defensive or other facilities are being attacked on a grand scale.

Ironically, according to a U.N. spokesman, U.N. monitors of the demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait notified the Security Council the other day that armed U.S. Marines had repeatedly breached the zone in violation of a 1991 U.N. resolution ending the last gulf war.

The agreement to yet another brief reprieve until March 17 from the man who will formally order the next war may have stemmed from his desire to extend some modest political help to his most loyal ally, Tony Blair. The British prime minister's own future may be at stake in the face of heavy opposition to war at home, but that doesn't seem likely to change the basic outcome.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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