Bush turns on charm, waves U.S. stick

With prestige at stake, president phones leaders to garner support on Iraq

March 13, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - An increasingly isolated President Bush furiously lobbied wary world leaders from his desk in the Oval Office yesterday, employing his brand of personal diplomacy to persuade them to back his tough line against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

During a third consecutive day devoted almost exclusively to Iraq, Bush conferred by phone with leaders from Russia, Britain, Pakistan, Spain, Lithuania, the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates, a lobbying blur reminiscent of a president trying to ram a pet bill through Congress. But these were delicate negotiations about war and peace.

The president's efforts are designed to salvage a deteriorating diplomatic situation that has left the United States facing the prospect of launching an invasion against the will of friends and allies - notably France, Germany and Russia - and the sentiments of millions around the world.

The stakes are high, with Bush edging toward a decision on waging a war that could well define his presidency.

Bush, who usually speaks publicly at least once a day, has been largely out of public view since his news conference last Thursday night. That is due in part, aides say, to the time-consuming calls. On Monday, he phoned more heads of state than on any other day as president, except for Oct. 7, 2001, when he informed many that he had ordered bombing raids in Afghanistan.

Warnings from Bush

Bush is relying on more than personal charm. With a showdown vote at the United Nations fast approaching, administration officials have begun warning nations publicly that bucking the president on Iraq could have unpleasant consequences.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president has made clear in his phone calls that he would be "disappointed" if leaders do not line up behind him.

Asked how that disappointment could affect relations, Fleischer said both the American people and members of Congress - who vote on foreign aid, treaties and trade agreements - "think about these things."

Over the past several days, Bush has spoken not just to leaders of nations on the U.N. Security Council, where a resolution authorizing military force against Iraq could be voted on this week, but to leaders of states who might be able to influence council members.

Two days ago, for example, he called Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose country is not on the council, but who then called to pressure Mexican President Vicente Fox, whose country is.

The limits of charm

Along the way, Bush is getting a lesson in the limits of personal diplomacy as world leaders whom he has cultivated - among them Fox, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and French President Jacques Chirac - have reacted cautiously to his entreaties or flatly rejected them.

Whether it was bringing Putin to his Texas ranch to chat about a nuclear weapons treaty at a barbecue or inviting a wavering lawmaker aboard Air Force One for a tete-a-tete about tax cuts, the president has enjoyed success using his charm and backslapping skills to nudge people toward his positions.

With foreign leaders in particular, Bush has devoted time to developing trust in relationships he views as important to the nation, holding friendly talks in less formal settings in advance of more substantive conversations to come.

Thus far in the diplomatic crisis over Iraq, though, the president has failed to win firm support for war from a host of fellow heads of state, including key fence-sitting members of the Security Council, such as Mexico and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Chirac and Putin, leaders who have been hailed by the president as friends, have threatened to veto a U.S.-sponsored resolution authorizing war. And Fox, whom Bush has portrayed as his like-minded cowboy compatriot from south of the border, has hesitated to back the United States.

For the moment, the president's personal diplomacy appears to have hit a wall, in part because of overwhelming public opposition to war around the world that has made it difficult for many national leaders to support him. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is already paying a steep political price at home for backing the U.S. position.

Many world leaders also remain unconvinced that Iraq poses an immediate threat. Moreover, they do not want to look like they are bowing to pressure from the United States.

"We have a very specific agenda that involves getting rid of regimes we don't like, and that is a hard thing to sell to other governments," said Chester A. Crocker, a Georgetown University professor who served as an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

"There has to be some shared sense of purpose, and shared sense of challenges and threats," Crocker said. Bush "cannot simply pull this off with a bank of telephones in the Oval Office, hoping his personal magnetism and charm will win out."

There were signs yesterday that what aides describe as Bush's "telephone diplomacy" was being coupled with blunt warnings of consequences for opposing the president.

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