Bush Isn't as Lonely as He Looks

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Those Bushes — they love serial schmoozing. Twelve years ago, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the family's first President used to boast about the number of world leaders he'd managed to telephone in an afternoon. Now his son has caught the bug. Six days before he was due to give a speech at the United Nations, President Bush spoke about Iraq to his opposite numbers in France, China and Russia. The next day Bush was host to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David before preparing to meet Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Sept. 9.

The diplomatic chatter marks a new stage in the Iraq story. Some of Bush's conversations last week can't have been easy, and not just because the President doesn't have the delicately modulated tones of the men in striped pants. (As a South Korean official once said, "George Bush speaks with an iron tongue.") If you do nothing but read the headlines, it would seem that everyone from Nelson Mandela to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder is implacably opposed to a war with Iraq. Both in the Arab world and in Europe, it is feared that unseating Saddam will inflame Muslim opinion, already incensed by American support for Israel in its struggle with the Palestinians. Next, it's said that the U.S. has no clear sense of how a post-Saddam Iraq might be governed or how its territorial integrity can be maintained. Perhaps above all, outside the U.S. it's widely thought that unless an attack on Iraq is endorsed by the U.N., it will encourage nations to overthrow regimes just because they don't like them. Even in Britain, Washington's most reliable ally, a poll found 71% opposing military action against Iraq unless it is endorsed by the U.N.

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Bush, effectively, has committed himself to engaging those arguments. He has done so not because he absolutely has to — most observers think the awesome American armed forces, on their own, could overthrow Saddam — but because seeking allies makes sense. For America to act alone against Iraq, without U.N. sanction, would risk a backlash against American interests around the world. "There's no doubt," says a European diplomat, "that it would be better to do it in company." Thus Bush's speechwriters, before his U.N. appearance, were considering a heavy internationalist tone. ("He'll be Mr. Multilateral," says an aide.) The President is expected to remind the assembled leaders of their solemn duty to see that Iraq is forced to comply with U.N. resolutions passed in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991; Iraq, say the British, is presently in breach of 23 out of 27 obligations. But there will be a subtext. Bush's bottom line, says a senior Administration official, will be "if [the U.N] doesn't do something, we will." Diplomacy, where what is said in public is merely a useful guide to private conviction, has a curious logic. In essence, Washington believes it is more likely to get a multilateral solution on Iraq if it appears ready to take action unilaterally.

From the standpoint of Washington's hard-liners — those who insist that you can't get rid of the threat from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction without getting rid of Saddam — just going to the U.N. has risks. Diplomatic negotiations, with their shuffled compromises and ambiguous texts, are not the favorite terrain of the moral-clarity crowd, who need no fresh justification to get rid of Saddam. A White House aide says sharply, "We haven't said anything about a new [Security Council] resolution." But in practice, both American and foreign diplomats are working on the assumption that now that debate has shifted to the U.N., a new resolution will indeed be drafted. Whatever its precise words, its purpose will be to require that Iraq grant unfettered access to weapons inspectors or be declared in breach of its post-Gulf War obligations and face the military consequences. The trick will be to make such a resolution so tough that the American Administration does not think Saddam can wriggle out of its terms, while not making the whole exercise appear a cynical sham.

Though it won't be easy, crafting such language is what U.N. diplomats do for their free parking and East Side apartments. And, in fact, the U.S. has more supporters than may appear to be the case. The British, of course, are staunch. Partly, Blair's support for Bush reflects the traditional British default position — back Washington whenever possible. "America," said Blair last week, speaking of the dangers of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, "shouldn't be left to face these issues alone." But instinctive support for Washington isn't the whole story. Blair is one of the few modern European politicians comfortable thinking of the world in moral terms. There's a strain of Victorian rectitude in him that explains why he's convinced of Saddam's venality. The soon-to-be-published British dossier on Saddam's behavior, say two sources who have read it, will stress the Iraqi leader's brutality — his use of torture, the fact that he killed perhaps 100,000 Kurds (some of them with chemical weapons) to maintain his rule.

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