The Speech: Bush Seeks Common Ground on Iraq

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The Bush Administration's policy of "regime-change" in Iraq has usually implied getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But President Bush last night left the door open to a second interpretation: If Saddam complies with all applicable UN resolutions on disarmament, good governance and curbing terrorism, "this will change the nature of the regime itself." And, the President added, "America hopes the regime will make that choice." Not that the President was suggesting that he believed Saddam was about to change his ways: "Unfortunately, at least so far, we have little reason to expect it." But the tone of his Cincinnati address on Iraq was to urge Americans and the international community to stand firm in sending Saddam a final ultimatum, and that the best chance of making the Iraqi dictator heed that warning was to declare their readiness to go to war if he refuses.

Rather than introduce any new evidence to win over the many skeptics of military action at home and abroad, the President simply summarized the arguments his administration has rolled out over the weeks to the effect that although Saddam Hussein may not be poised to launch hostilities against America and its allies, and Iraq's proximity to attaining a nuclear capability is not known, there is ample evidence of his continued commitment to procuring weapons of mass destruction — and that given his track record of pathological and homicidal behavior, waiting for the threat to manifest itself is an intolerable option. By emphasizing his preference for achieving Iraqi disarmament without war — but insisting that on disarmament as non-negotiable — Bush reached out to those allies who share the administration's concern over Iraq's weapons programs but fear the consequences of a rush to war even more. His message to Congress and the UN was that Iraq must be compelled to disarm, first (and preferably) through diplomacy backed by a credible threat of force; and if that fails, by going to war. And, more immediately, that the best hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict was to leave Saddam no room for doubt that he has no wiggle room on the question of weapons of mass destruction, and that any failure to disarm will doom his regime.

The President is likely to win strong support from Congress. At the UN, however, the ultimatum demanded by the Bush administration remains elusive — at least in the form of a single Security Council resolution that sanctions the automatic use of force if Saddam fails to comply with tough disarmament requirements. France's compromise between the U.S. position and a Russian reluctance to pass any new resolution — first a resolution setting out disarmament requirements; then, if Saddam fails to comply, a second resolution authorizing force — looks set to prevail. The President's speech also scaled back U.S. demands first presented in a draft Security Council resolution that had included the creation of UN-authorized military bases inside Iraq and for troops to accompany inspectors. Bush focused, instead, on three specific demands: That Saddam be required, even before inspectors return, to make a full declaration of all his weapons of mass destruction and agree to destroy them; that inspectors be free to conduct inspections anywhere, anytime; and that they be given the right to take Iraqi officials and their families out of the country for questioning. On the first two, at least, the administration is likely to prevail. Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix last week endorsed the U.S. call for a declaration-in-advance by Baghdad, and even Iraqi officials have said they would comply with an anywhere-anytime formula. The declaration requirement may be the key, in fact, because it demands that Baghdad once again undertake to disarm in good faith, rather than continue the catch-me-if-you-can posture made possible by the previous inspection regime — and the implication is clear that once such a declaration is made, any revelations of further trickery will likely trigger an invasion, with wider international endorsement.

That process may be particularly important to U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world who for the most part oppose a war but are resigned to its inevitability — and intend to remain U.S. allies despite any skepticism over its Iraq policy. Given the expectation that Congress will actually grant Bush the authority to go to war even without a green light from the UN, Security Council legitimacy for any action against Iraq may be even more important to U.S. allies than it is to Washington right now. By reaching for the common ground and emphasizing that Saddam must be given a final chance to comply with UN demands, President Bush allayed the worst fears of skeptical allies even as he turned up the heat on Baghdad.