“‘Don’t worry. We’ve got a plan. We purposefully let the Iraq issue stay in no-man’s-land for a while. But we know what we’re doing.’ That’s what senior people at the White House tell me,” the Reverend Lou Sheldon, the chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, informs me while we’re waiting for sandwiches. (It pays to favor the Capitol Hill deli fancied by a leader of the religious right.) “I sure hope so,” he adds.
There does seem to be a plan in the works. August, as White House chief of staff Andrew Card told a reporter, is an awful time to “introduce new products”–such as a war. So the Bush administration waited until back-to-school week to add the latest lyrics to its beating of the war drums. As part of the run-up to Bush’s September 12 speech at the UN–in which, the White House promises, he will lay out the case for confronting Saddam Hussein–the big cahunas of Bush’s posse hit the Sunday shows to issue the pre-case for going to war with Iraq.
This whole operation has a fake air to it, for Bush and Dick Cheney have already talked themselves into a corner. Bush has repeatedly cited Saddam as an immediate and direct threat to the United States and the entire world. Cheney has said time is of the essence and that even a revived weapons inspection program in Iraq would not undo this threat. In fact, he argued, a program to monitor and disarm Saddam would only provide a false sense of comfort and allow Saddam more time to become more of a menace. With such rhetoric, the Bush administration has left itself with no option other than a military strike against Saddam.
Meanwhile, Bush and his lieutenants have already been trying to make the case. For months, they have been on the phone and in meetings with European, Asian and Middle Eastern allies, desperately seeking partners for the crusade against Saddam. Only one other leader so far has signed up–British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Most others have publicly distanced themselves from the administration’s get-Saddam-now urgings. Is Bush going to say anything much different at the UN than what he and his people have already told the allies?
Bush may have one more chance with his UN speech. But the pre-speech chatter from the administration showed that Team Bush has still not come together on the fine points of its war against Iraq. On Fox News Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that “disarmament is the issue” and that the reason for “regime change” (the administration’s euphemism for attacking Iraq) is to “make sure” Iraq is disarmed. Yet when Tim Russert asked Cheney on Meet The Press whether the goal is “disarmament or regime change,” Cheney replied, “The President’s made it clear that the goal of the United States is regime change.” (Guess Powell missed that memo.) On CNN, Wolf Blitzer asked national security adviser Condoleeza Rice if the Iraqi government was linked to al Qaeda. She responded, “There is certainly evidence that al Qaeda people have been in Iraq. There is certainly evidence that Saddam Hussein cavorts with terrorists.” Asked if Iraq has been “working with and supporting al Qaeda,” Powell said, “We cannot yet make a definitive conclusion that such a thing has occurred.” On this subject, Cheney said, “there has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years” between Iraq and al Qaeda. He did not elaborate on this vague but provocative assertion.
Powell noted that a “more robust and aggressive” inspection regime would be worth pursuing, claiming the issue was “under consideration.” Cheney stuck to his previous stand on inspections but without reiterating his forceful opposition: “I’m a real skeptic.” As to why America’s allies have left Bush in the lurch, Cheney said, “I don’t think they know the same information” as the Bush administration. Powell, though, remarked, “I think they know enough to come to the same conclusion.”
Pity the viewer who watched all the interviews. With days to go to the Big Speech, there still was not one set of talking points. But the Bush advisers did agree that Bush intended to pressure the UN to move against Saddam. As Powell commented, in the face of Iraqi violations of UN resolutions ordering Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction, “the United Nations should feel offended, the United Nations should feel that something has to be done.” Powell said Bush will deliver “a strong message that it’s time [for the UN] to do something.”
This is Texas-sized chutzpah. The Bush administration has repeatedly told the UN to get lost. A partial list: it opposed the Kyoto protocol on global warming; it boycotted a UN conference held to encourage states to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty, which outlaws nuclear tests; it refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the execution of juveniles; it walked out of a UN conference on racism over fear that the meeting would condemn Israel; it rejected a draft UN agreement to enforce a biological weapons ban that was supported by almost every other participating nation; it opposed a UN initiative against torture that established an inspection process, out of concern this would lead to monitors in US prisons, especially the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay; and it successfully led smear-like campaigns to oust the UN human rights commissioner, Mary Robinson, and the head of the UN agency that overseas the chemical weapons treaty.
The Bush gang has displayed little respect for the UN. Often when the UN has declared a priority, the Bush administration has dismissed the body’s concern. Yet now Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says, “I think it is probably not a good thing for the United Nations to be laughed at and sneered at and disobeyed and…to not be significant enough….And for the United Nations to acquiesce in that, it seems to me, is an unfortunate thing.”
What if the UN this time around does the spurning? “We’d like to do it with the sanction of the international community,” Cheney commented, without defining the “it.” Yet he added: “But the point in Iraq is this problem has to be dealt with one way or another.” By the way, he said the same regarding Congress. In other words, it would be nice to have you with us, but we don’t need you.
So Bush’s UN trip is something of a high-risk but mandatory charade. Critics at home and abroad say he has to win foreign support for his campaign against Iraq. His administration has accepted that he needs to take a stab at that, but it is clearly signaling it is willing, if not eager, to saddle up alone. Given Bush’s failure to date to convince any head of state other than Blair–and his inability to persuade Republican Senators like Chuck Hagel and Larry Craig and former Bush I officials like Brent Scowcroft and Larry Eagleburger–the UN speech is unlikely to change many minds. But that probably won’t matter. The plan will remain the same.