President Bush yesterday met with his top national security and military advisers at Camp David while his aides insisted U.S. diplomatic efforts in the next six weeks will not be aimed at negotiating a deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but only at convincing him his only recourse is to withdraw from Kuwait.
The administration's task over the next week will be, as one senior official put it, "making sure our coalition partners understand that this is not an opening for negotiation or an invitation" to others to pursue some sort of settlement outside the mandates of the United Nations resolutions. The resolutions call for complete withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait, restoration of the original government in Kuwait and release of hostages.
White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu said yesterday Bush's call for a meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Saddam, as well as a presidential session with Iraq's foreign minister, was part of a diplomatic "checklist" from which the president is ticking off diplomatic and domestic moves the administration thinks it must make in final efforts to get Iraq to withdraw before considering military force.
Sununu said Bush had been "thinking for a month or two" that a direct contact between Saddam and a senior official would be needed and that he and Baker had heard such suggestions from U.S. allies over the past month.
Sununu, in an interview from Camp David, said that during Bush's recent European and Middle Eastern trip, in which he met with leaders from more than a dozen nations, the president concluded that such a diplomatic effort should come after, not before, a United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
The White House adamantly denied any interest in sending a high-level envoy to Baghdad as recently as two days before Bush announced the plan. Sununu said the administration feared some members of the international coalition might prefer the diplomatic move by Baker to occur before a vote authorizing force, which was approved by the U.N. Security Council Thursday.
Sununu said Bush's sense of what steps should follow in what order required that "first we demonstrate the resolve of the coalition" with the U.N. vote and then "we convey to Saddam Hussein our position" that he must leave Kuwait.
Sununu, deputy national security adviser Robert M. Gates and other senior officials continued to insist yesterday that Bush was not offering to negotiate, even if Iraq and others are now treating it that way.
Gates, speaking on the CNN "Newsmaker Saturday" show, said, "What it is not is a negotiation. It is not an attempt to have some sort of deal."
Sununu said Bush's offer represents a final effort to convince Saddam that there is no alternative to withdrawal.
Sununu would only describe yesterday's Camp David sessions -- also attended by Baker, Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and the Joint Chiefs as well as national security adviser Brent Scowcroft -- as one devoted to a general update on the military and diplomatic situation in the Gulf session.
Gates insisted, "It's not some sort of council of war" occurring with 45 days left before the the Jan. 15 deadline in the UN resolution.
Bush is to leave today on a weeklong visit to South America and officials said yesterday he will devote some of his time there to telephone conversations with other leaders in the gulf coalition, seeking in part to emphasize to them the need for the coalition to stay together and not attempt any separate negotiations with Saddam.
The administration has put all three members of its senior foreign policy team -- Baker, Scowcroft and Cheney -- on today's television interview shows to emphasize that point.