President Bush States His Iraq War Aims

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MIKE THEILER/AFP

Bush: Rallying support for a possible war against Iraq

President Bush wants skeptics at home and abroad to believe that a war to depose Saddam Hussein would spread democracy and peace in the troubled Middle East.

In a speech Wednesday the President reiterated an optimistic view in which a post-Saddam Iraq serves as a beacon of secular liberalism for its authoritarian neighbors, even facilitating peace between Israel and the Palestinians by removing a source of encouragement to suicide bombers. But the Arab and European allies that have opposed this war have heard this argument before, and it hasn't convinced them. Nor is it likely to break the deadlock at the UN Security Council, where the U.S., Britain and Spain are pushing a resolution that would give, if not explicit authorization, at least a nod to war, while France, Russia and Germany insist that weapons inspectors be given more time.

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The White House sought to underscore the President's description of the wider benefits of ousting Saddam by touting his Thursday meeting with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai as Exhibit A in the case for regime-change. The urbane, moderate Karzai personifies the changes wrought in Afghanistan by the U.S. ouster of the Taliban — in which a brutal, mediaevalist regime was destroyed, allowing Afghans to hope for an end to more than two decades of civil war.

But there's a downside to the Afghanistan example: almost 18 months after the Taliban's defeat, Karzai's authority doesn't extend far beyond the gates of the palace in Kabul where he's permanently guarded by U.S. personnel. Much of Afghanistan has been carved up among rival warlords, and even Karzai's own Defense Minister has refused to disband his private militias. The opium trade and banditry remain staple economic activities; the Taliban and al-Qaeda are regrouping and expanding their activity both in the countryside and in the capital; and U.S. and coalition forces come under fire almost every day.

In other words, the post-Taliban order engineered by the U.S. is in danger of unraveling. And Karzai himself is all too aware that Washington's attention has shifted elsewhere. He came to the White House to plead for Afghanistan not to be forgotten, two weeks after it was reported that the Bush administration had — apparently as a result of an oversight — neglected to ask Congress to allocate any money for Afghan aid in its current budget.

The primary weakness of the post-Taliban order in Afghanistan is that it remains dependent on the U.S.-led coalition for security, but stabilizing the country may be beyond the means of the 9,000 U.S. troops and the small international force currently stationed there. Securing a post-Saddam Iraq, of course, will involve a far deeper commitment. Army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki on Tuesday told Congress that upwards of 200,000 U.S. troops may be needed to keep the peace, and defense analysts have suggested that although the number of troops required would gradually ease, the mission could continue for years.

The challenges that could face a peacekeeping force have been underscored this week by mounting tension between Turkey and Iraq's Kurds. As part of its price for granting the U.S. basing rights, Turkey wants the right to put an army of its own into northern Iraq in order to suppress any move towards Kurdish independence. And Kurdish leaders are fiercely resistant to that proposal, some warning that the Turks would be treated as invaders. Both sides are U.S. allies, and both expect the U.S. to rule in their favor.

Turkey, of course, is still playing hard-to-get. Ankara on Thursday again delayed a parliamentary vote authorizing the deployment of some 60,000 U.S. troops on Turkish soil. The government has been negotiating over a multibillion dollar aid package from the U.S. as well as over Turkish involvement in northern Iraq. But some 90 percent of Turkey's electorate opposes a war, leaving the ruling party in a tough predicament.

The Turks aren't the only ones having a hard time selling the war to their legislature and electorate — even President Bush's staunchest ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, is struggling. A parliamentary vote on a motion, rejected by Blair, to give UN inspections more time in Iraq saw almost one third of the legislators of Blair's own Labor Party vote against his government. Although Blair, with the help of the opposition Conservatives, still won the vote by a comfortable 2-1 margin, the fact that almost one third of his own party's legislators broke party discipline on a crucial war vote was a stark reminder that the Blair is in danger of losing the leadership of his own party — particularly if the war proceeds without UN authorization.

But what the Turkish model does show is that the Bush administration need not confining itself to assembling a "coalition of the willing." In some instances, it simply needs the broadest coalition money can buy. To muster the requisite nine votes to pass a resolution in the Security Council, for example, the administration is plainly aware that its leverage is not restricted to its powers of persuasion. Mexico, for example, has consistently backed "old Europe" in calling for inspections to be given more time. But on Wednesday, the Mexican government hinted it may be ready to shift its vote at the Security Council, not because it has been convinced by the U.S. argument but because it fears its dealings with Washington on issues such as trade and immigration will be negatively affected by voting against its neighbor.

A communiqué to Mexican embassies worldwide acquired by the AP advises that Mexico's position on the Iraq war will be determined exclusively by its primary "national interest," which is its relationship with the U.S. Washington may also be hoping that Chile's interest in pursuing trade agreements with the U.S. will sway its decision, and that similar aid-and-trade incentives could tempt Angola, Guinea and Cameroon to back the U.S. position.

The purpose of the President's speech outlining his war aims was, therefore, not simply an attempt to persuade the doubters. It was also a signal to the world that his mind is made up, and that reluctant allies everywhere had better move quickly to make their peace with a war that now looks inevitable.