President Bush yesterday brushed off questions about the readiness of American forces in the Persian Gulf to go to war, saying that were there "clear provocation 10 minutes from now, the allied forces are ready to respond vigorously."
But Bush also said he would discuss Monday U.S. readiness with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell when they return from a trip to the gulf region.
Last week, Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in the region, said U.S. forces would not be fully ready for an offensive war to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait by Jan. 15, the withdrawal deadline set by the United Nations. Cheney and Powell have said U.S. troops have been fully prepared since Nov. 1 to defend Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi attack.
At a joint press conference at Camp David with British Prime Minister John Major, the president also said he is confident of continuing Soviet support for his gulf policy, despite the surprise resignation of foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze on Thursday.
But Bush acknowledged that U.S. officials are concerned about Shevardnadze's warnings that the Soviet Union is drifting toward dictatorship.
"Life goes on," Bush said. "We will pursue policies in the gulf confident that the Soviet Union will continue on its path. . . . Obviously people are . . . wondering about the concerns raised by Mr. Shevardnadze."
Shevardnadze's resignation deprived the United States of one of its strongest allies in the shaping of its Persian Gulf policy and the enactment of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait by Jan. 15 or face the threat of military action.
But Bush said "every indication" so far is that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev will continue to support the use of force, if necessary, to enforce the U.N. resolutions requiring Iraq to relinquish control of Kuwait, which it invaded Aug. 2.
Major said he hoped the Soviet Union would continue down the path to economic and political reform that it embarked on several years ago under Gorbachev. But a deteriorating economy and increasing unrest in many of the Soviet republics have given fresh strength to the conservative faction.
Conservatives across the board emphasize the need to return to order, keep the Communist Party preeminent and put an end to the secessionist move in the republics. Yesterday, Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, said that the Soviet people must be "ready to accept bloodshed" to bring about order. Responding to that comment, Major said the Soviet Union has "gone a long way in a short period of time, but it has a long way to go. We hope it can travel the long road and do so without bloodshed and peaceably."
Bush's assurances of U.S. readiness in the gulf did not distinguish between an offensive and defensive war, although they came in response to a question about Waller's recent statements to reporters. Top Pentagon officials played down Waller's remarks, while White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said they might be helpful by contributing to a sense of uncertainty in Saddam's mind about when a strike would occur.
Cheney, on the pre-Christmas tour of the gulf with Powell, told Marines in eastern Saudia Arabia yesterday he does not believe Bush will wait long after the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline to initiate military action against Iraq.
After the press conference at the fog-shrouded presidential retreat, Fitzwater said the meeting scheduled with Cheney and Powell was not an urgent one but simply a chance for the president to hear first-hand what the two Pentagon leaders had learned about the military situation in the gulf.
Major, who took over the leadership of Great Britain last month after the resignation of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, continued to show unwavering solidarity with Bush on the gulf, saying what Saddam has done in Kuwait "is unforgivable" and urging the Iraqi leader to heed the warnings contained in the U.N. resolutions.
"If he moves out, there won't be a conflict," Major said. "If he doesn't, well, he knows what the consequences may be."
Bush said the United States and and Britain were "totally together" on the gulf, with both nations "still hoping" for a peaceful resolution. "But I am convinced that Saddam Hussein hasn't gotten the message yet, for some odd reason -- the message of what he's up against, the message that all of us are determined to fulfill to the letter the U.N. resolutions."
Neither Bush nor Major expressed much optimism about the prospects for direct talks between the United States and Iraq. "We'll continue to hope that he'll be reasonable," Bush said, "but I see no evidence of it."
But Major repeated the allied position that "there is nothing to negotiate about" if Secretary of State James A. Baker III sits down with Saddam in Baghdad, as Bush proposed.
With congressional leaders discussing whether to debate a resolution supporting Bush's gulf policy when they convene in early January, the president said a show of support from lawmakers would be a "solid signal" to Saddam of American unity. But he suggested he is prepared to act without explicit congressional authorization.
Fitzwater said the White House was not surprised by the comments of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who said Friday that sanctions alone cannot succeed in driving Iraq out of Kuwait and that diplomacy and the threat of military action were needed to end the crisis.
But Fitzwater said a partial withdrawal by Iraq, which Aspin said could be considered "a partial victory" for the United States and its allies, was "not acceptable."
The fog forced Major to scrub his planned helicopter flight back to Washington yesterday morning. He departed by motorcade and left for England later in the day.
Bush plans to spend Christmas week at the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains with his family.