"It says, 'Here's what he's done wrong; here's what he has to do to fix himself,' and then it stops?" Powell asked in some wonderment. "You've got to ask for something."
So the principals then had a fight about what to ask for. They finally agreed that Bush should ask the United Nations to act.
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___ About This Series ___
"Bush at War" is based on notes taken during more than 50 National Security Council and other meetings. Many direct quotations of President Bush and the war cabinet members come from these notes. Other personal notes, memos, calendars, written internal chronologies, transcripts and other documents were also the basis for direct quotations and other parts of this story.
More than 100 people involved in the decision making, including President Bush, were interviewed. Thoughts, conclusions and feelings attributed to the participants come either from the people themselves, a colleague with direct knowledge of them or the written record.
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___ Related Series ___
Ten Days in September. This 8-part report from Bob Woodward and Dan Balz reconstructed the atmosphere inside the White House during the days immediately after Sept. 11.
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Powell accepted that, since the only way the United Nations really acted was through resolutions. So that was the implied action. Calling for a new resolution would have really nailed it, but the call to "act" was sufficient for Powell.
Bush's Words to the U.N.
Two days before the president was to go to the United Nations, Powell reviewed Draft No. 21 of the speech text the White House had sent him with EYES ONLY and URGENT stamped all over it. On Page 8, Bush promised to work with the United Nations "to meet our common challenge." There was no call for the United Nations to act.
At a principals' committee meeting without the president just before Bush left for New York, Cheney voiced his opposition to having the president ask specifically for new resolutions. It was a matter of tactics and of presidential credibility, the vice president argued. Suppose the president asked and the Security Council refused? Hussein was a master bluffer. He'd cheat and retreat, find a way to delay what was required. What was necessary was getting Hussein out of power. If he attacked the United States or anyone with the weapons of mass destruction available to him -- especially on a large scale -- the world would never forgive them for inaction and giving in to the impulse to engage in semantic debates in U.N. resolutions.
Rumsfeld said they needed to stand on principle, but he then posed a series of rhetorical questions, and did not come down hard about the language.
Cheney and Powell went at each other in a blistering argument. It was Powell's internationalism versus Cheney's unilateralism.
"I don't know if we got it or not," Powell told Armitage later.
The night before the speech, Bush spoke with Powell and Rice. He had decided he was going to ask for new resolutions. At first he thought he would authorize Powell and Rice to say after his speech that the United States would work on them with the United Nations. But he had concluded he might as well say it himself in the speech. He liked the policy headline to come directly from him. He ordered that a sentence be inserted near the top of Page 8, saying he would work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary "resolutions." It was added to the next and final draft, No. 24.
"He's going to have it in there," Powell reported to Armitage.
At the podium in the famous General Assembly hall, Bush reached the portion of the speech where he was to say he would seek resolutions. But the change hadn't made it into the copy that was put into the TelePrompTer. So Bush read the old line, "My nation will work with the U.N. Security Council to meet our common challenge."
Powell was reading along with Draft No. 24, penciling in any ad-libs that the president made. His heart almost stopped. The sentence about resolutions was gone! He hadn't said it! It was the punch line!
But as Bush read the old sentence, he realized that the part about resolutions was missing. With only mild awkwardness he ad-libbed it, saying later, "We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions."
Powell breathed again.
The president's speech was generally a big hit. It was widely praised for its toughness, its willingness to seek international support for his Iraq policy, and its effective challenge to the United Nations to enforce its own resolutions. It was a big boost for Powell, who stayed behind in New York to rally support for the policy, especially from Russia and France, who as permanent members of the Security Council could veto any resolution.
The next day Iraq announced that it would admit new weapons inspectors. Few believed it was sincere. See, Cheney argued, the United States and the United Nations were being toyed with, played for fools.
Bush believed a preemption strategy might be the only alternative if he were serious about not waiting for events. The realities at the beginning of the 21st century were two: the possibility of another massive, surprise terrorist attack similar to Sept. 11, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- biological, chemical or nuclear. Should the two converge in the hands of terrorists or a rogue state, the United States could be attacked, and tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people could be killed.
In addition, the president and his team had found that protecting and sealing the U.S. homeland was basically impossible. Even with heightened security and the national terrorist alerts, the country was only marginally safer. The United States had absorbed Pearl Harbor and gone on to win World War II. For the moment, the country had absorbed Sept. 11 and gone on to win the first phase of the war in Afghanistan. What would happen if there were a nuclear attack, killing tens or hundreds of thousands? A free country could become a police state. What would the citizens or history think of a president who had not acted in absolutely the most aggressive way? When did a defense require an active offense?
Bush's troubleshooter, Condi Rice, felt the administration had little choice with Hussein.
"The lesson of September 11: Take care of threats early," she said.
But the president proceeded as if he were willing to give the United Nations a chance, and his public rhetoric softened. Instead of speaking only about regime change, he said his policy was to get Iraq to give up its weapons of mass destruction. "A military option is not the first choice," Bush told reporters on Oct. 1, "but disarming this man is."
In a speech to the nation Monday, Oct. 7, the one-year anniversary of the commencement of the military strikes in Afghanistan, the president said that Hussein posed an immediate threat to the United States. As Congress debated whether to pass its own resolution authorizing the use of force against Hussein, Bush said war was avoidable and not imminent. "I hope this will not require military action," he said.
This was all a victory for Powell, but perhaps only a momentary one. The scaled-down rhetoric did mean that the president could say no to Cheney and Rumsfeld, but it did not mean a lessening of Bush's fierce determination. As always, it was an ongoing struggle for the president's heart and mind.
On Nov. 8, the U.N. Security Council approved a new resolution, 15 to 0, ordering Iraq to admit weapons inspectors. In a Rose Garden statement, the president praised Powell "for his leadership, his good work and his determination over the past two months."
Mark Malseed contributed to this report.