"We're going around in circles," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said as Air Force One carried President Bush home from his recent trip to Europe.
The spokesman was not talking about air-traffic delays. Rather, he was trying to explain how the president's current hope that Saddam Hussein will peaceably disarm is consistent with his earlier view that the Iraqi leader should be ousted. And Fleischer faced strong headwinds.
With Britain's Tony Blair on April 6, Bush declared: "I explained to the prime minister that the policy of my government is the removal of Saddam." Moments later, Bush added, "Maybe I should be a little less direct and be a little more nuanced, and say we support regime change."
Recently, though, Bush has sounded more dovish. "I hope we don't have to go to war with Iraq," he told Czech TV on Nov. 18. "I hope that Saddam Hussein does what he said he would do, and that is disarm." In speeches yesterday, Bush and Vice President Cheney again emphasized disarming Hussein and made no mention of regime change.
The delicate phrasing is the result of a geopolitical Catch-22 the Bush administration faces as it confronts the Iraqi president.
Bush and his aides are pretty much convinced that Iraq will never disarm with Hussein in power. But to oust him, the administration would like to have international support. And Bush can only get such support if he makes his goal the disarmament of Iraq, not the ouster of its leader.
The administration therefore must embrace a new goal -- Iraq's peaceful disarmament -- that it regards as nearly impossible to achieve, so it can build support for its original goal of replacing Hussein. As Elizabeth Drew reported in the New York Review of Books, the administration acknowledged that the true goal of regime change had to be "played down" to satisfy the United Nations.
That has led to the aerial maneuvers employed by Fleischer on Air Force One 10 days ago. Reporters, led by Time magazine's John Dickerson, prompted this in-flight exchange when they tried to clarify whether Bush's goal was disarmament or regime change:
Q: I just have one quick question on Iraq. Since it's clear that President Putin wants the United States to stick to the U.N. resolution, but since the United States position is that, in order to disarm Saddam Hussein, he must be removed from office, did Putin discuss with the President the U.S. position that, in order to disarm him, we must remove him from office?
FLEISCHER: The President's position is that Saddam Hussein needs to live up to the resolution and disarm. If he does not, he will be disarmed. So that's the President's position, to be clear about what the President is saying.
Q: The President has never said that we want to remove Saddam Hussein from office?
FLEISCHER: The President has said that he hopes that Saddam Hussein and Iraq will comply with the resolution. If they don't, we will disarm them.
Q: In the press conference with Tony Blair, the President didn't say, "We want to remove Saddam Hussein from office"?
FLEISCHER: The President's position is either he will disarm or we will remove him so Iraq is disarmed.
Q: Did he or did he not say that he wants to remove Saddam Hussein, in that press conference with Tony Blair? I mean, is that his position or not?
FLEISCHER: Look, this is an age-old issue and we've gone through this a month ago about can Saddam Hussein disarm.
Q: No, but do we want to remove him from office or not?
FLEISCHER: If he doesn't disarm, yes.
Q: If he does disarm?
FLEISCHER: If Iraq disarms and you have all the other products of the U.N. resolution obeyed and what President Bush called for in New York obeyed, then the regime will have effectively changed.
Q: So then he could stay in office?
FLEISCHER: I think we're very skeptical of Saddam Hussein has any intention of doing it that way. . . .
Q: So the President has changed his mind on whether he wants to remove him from office?
FLEISCHER: We're going around in circles on this. You know what the President's position is. . . .
Q: No, I don't.
Q: The President has often said that regime change is the policy of this administration, as it was the previous administration.
FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q: The President has defined that in a press conference with Tony Blair as removing Saddam Hussein from office. You are now saying that's not the case?
FLEISCHER: This is not very complicated. The objective is to disarm Saddam Hussein and have Saddam Hussein live up to everything that he committed to, that the President called on him to do in his Sept. 12 speech.
Q: Why can't you be as clear as the President was when he said in his press conference with Tony Blair that he wants to remove Saddam Hussein from office?
FLEISCHER: If Saddam Hussein doesn't disarm, he will be removed from office. And the President is very skeptical that Saddam Hussein will disarm. But the burden is on Saddam Hussein.
Glad that's cleared up.