President Bush yesterday said in a radio address that the Wednesday meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz will involve no secret diplomacy but only a restatement that Iraq must withdraw "unconditionally and immediately" from Kuwait or be ejected by force.
Bush's address came on a day in which he met with United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar in what officials described as a session in which they compared "notes only." Bush also met senior White House and State Department officials, who maintained a pessimistic view of the international diplomacy occurring before the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal, set by the U.N. Security Council.
"I would not confuse activity with progress," said a senior State Department official of efforts by the European Community, the French and other international officials who have been attempting to play a mediating role between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where the bulk of the international forces are arrayed against Iraq.
"There is a lot of activity," the official said. There is going to be a lot more as Jan. 15 approaches. We have seen no progress." The official said the United States has seen "no reports, no information" from any of the diplomatic efforts that would indicate a softening of Saddam's positions.
A senior White House official seconded that view. If anything, the official said, the administration is more leery, having expected by now a move toward a partial pullout by Iraq or some other move that would complicate the efforts to produce a total withdrawal.
Bush, in his address, deviated little from his previous statements that only a total, unconditional withdrawal was acceptable. He said Baker "will restate in person a message for Saddam Hussein: Withdraw from Kuwait unconditionally and immediately or face the terrible consequences."
The president said Jan. 15 was "not a deadline for our own armed forces" but a deadline for Saddam. One official said Bush used this phraseology to signal Congress, engaged in a spirited debate over whether and when Bush should seek its authorization to use force, that military action will not necessarily occur immediately after the deadline.
The president, in his speech, restated his arguments for an early use of force if Saddam does not withdraw. Saddam's forces, he said, are being given more time to prepare their defenses. "We risk paying a higher price . . . in human life if we give Saddam more time to prepare for war," he said. He said that Kuwaitis who protected Americans for the months until Saddam allowed them to leave Kuwait should not be forced to endure occupation much longer.
A senior Democratic senator who had avoided public questioning of Bush's gulf policy yesterday sharply questioned any U.S. move to use force against Iraq to restore the government of Kuwait. Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a CNN interview that he would support "surgical strikes" to wipe out Iraq's chemical and nuclear weapons capabilities, but not a full-scale military action to restore the throne to the emir of Kuwait "with all of his 707s and his wives and his rich lifestyle."
Administration officials -- who entered the new year believing that with the backing of Democratic House and Senate leaders, the president could delay a contentious debate over gulf policy -- have grown increasingly alarmed this week that, as one official put it, "the lid can't be kept on by the leadership."
Congressional leaders Friday cleared the way for a full-scale debate on U.S. policy in the gulf before Jan. 15, something the administration had hoped to avoid. The White House position has been that the best option would be for Congress to grant Bush authority to use military force without a drawn-out debate. White House officials believe a debate with no certain outcome would weaken Bush's position and would be worse than no endorsement at all from Congress.
But a senior official said the White House became "resigned" this week to a contentious debate about gulf policy and that "Saddam will have to believe that whether some Democrats stand up and question the policy doesn't in one iota change our resolve" to use force.
Bush made a veiled reference to the need for political support in his address yesterday when he called for "full support" for the U.S. military deployed in the gulf. "We must all stand together, not as Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, but as Americans," he said.
Boren, in the television interview, strongly questioned whether using military force against Iraq was in the U.S. national interest. He said he had supported the original deployments aimed at protecting Saudi Arabia from invasion, but "I see us drifting in a direction that serves the national interests of Japan and Germany more than the national interests of the United States."
Boren said the Japanese and Germans have far more at stake economically than the United States in the gulf, but were not carrying the burden either economically or militarily.