President Bush said yesterday an international peacekeeping force will be needed in the Persian Gulf region, including the likelihood of an increased U.S. naval presence, even if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein withdraws from Kuwait.
Bush said U.S. ground troops would be removed as soon as possible after an Iraqi withdrawal, although he provided no timetable. But he added that a return to the status quo before Iraq's invasion would be "unacceptable."
He indicated that the United States and other nations would take steps to rein in Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons capabilities, regardless of whether Saddam complies with the U.N. Security Council deadline for a pullout.
"I think the status quo ante -- the return to where we were before Saddam invaded his neighbor -- is unacceptable, because I think you're going to see a cry for stability and order there, security and stability that cannot be met simply by a return to the pre-invasion borders or the status quo there," he said at a session with regional editors.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a separate appearance before the editors, said the peacekeeping force could mean an increased U.S. naval presence, the prospect of stepped-up military exercises in the region and prepositioning of U.S. equipment in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to meet a future crisis.
Administration officials have begun to think seriously in recent days about the shape of such a peacekeeping force, in event of an Iraqi withdrawal. Among other questions they are considering are how long ground forces would remain in the region and what kind of sanctions would be required to keep Saddam in check.
"If he does decide to get out, we want to be prepared for it," a senior administration official said.
The official said that U.S. planners envision an Arab-dominated ground force deployed indefinitely in the gulf to check Iraqi forces. "There is a general feeling that American ground forces should not be part of an enduring security arrangement in the gulf," he said.
Bush told the editors that while he still seeks a peaceful solution, he has done everything militarily that he can to assure that any conflict in the Persian Gulf will be as short as possible.
"It is not going to be another Vietnam," he said.
The president acknowledged that because "the agony of Vietnam is still with us," public "support would erode" for a protracted war in the gulf. He said his decision to nearly double the size of the U.S. forces in the region was done to avoid any drawn-out conflict and to safeguard as many lives as possible.
"One of the reasons I moved this additional force . . . was because every individual life is precious and if there had to be some confrontation, militarily I would want to . . . be able to assure the parents and families there is enough force there to minimize the risk to every single American kid and coalition kid . . . ," he said.
Bush said he has a clear conscience that "we're doing it right" through the massive military deployment.
He also sharply rejected charges that blacks and other minorities bear a disproportionate burden in the gulf deployment, saying that "this argument that there's some kind of racism" has no merit. "We have the finest kids, the best trained, the best motivated, the high achievers, not the low achievers," Bush said.
Bush said he is confident that the international coalition would hold, even if Saddam launched an attack against Israel as an effort to split off the Arab countries. Bush indicated that the United States has consulted with its Arab allies and the Israelis about how to respond to any Iraqi attack against Israel. "I'm convinced the coalition would not fall apart," he said.
One sign of solidarity in the coalition came in Brussels yesterday, where the 12 European Community foreign ministers canceled a planned meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz later this week, stipulating that he must first come to Washington to meet with Bush.
The ministers said afterward that they wanted to send a clear signal to Baghdad that there were no divisions between Europe and the United States on the issue of Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, Washington Post staff writer Glenn Frankel reported from London.
"We all realize that we mustn't give the impression that there is a difference of position between the United States and Europe, that we have a unified position," Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek said.
A senior administration official said there was no progress again yesterday in the dispute over the dates of direct talks between the United States and Iraq. "Maybe the Iraqis have decided that talks aren't all that helpful," the official said.
Bush said he is neither more nor less optimistic about a peaceful solution than at the time he proposed the talks, saying he does not know whether Saddam yet understands the determination of the coalition to use force if necessary.
"What I think is essential to get the peaceful resolution is that he realizes that he simply cannot prevail," Bush said.
Powell told editors he was not ready to predict that the administration would need to ask Congress for $30 billion to fund Operation Desert Shield.
Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, also said the United States would launch a new round of financial solicitations next year among allies. Democrats in Congress already have served notice that they will insist on greater financial aid from such countries as Japan and West Germany before committing substantial new tax money to the gulf conflict.
Last week, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said Japan and Germany had delivered only a small fraction of the aid they had pledged to the gulf operation. Yesterday, Japanese diplomats in Washington sought to refute that contention, saying Japan has delivered $585 million of the $2 billion it pledged to the multinational force in the gulf and about $950 million of roughly $2 billion promised for the frontline states of Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, whose economies are suffering from the conflict.
Staff writers John Burgess and Al Kamen contributed to this report.