The endgame has begun -- not only with Iraq, but also with America's friends.
By escalating his threats against Baghdad and insisting he is unwilling to participate in "the rerun of a bad movie," President Bush is serving notice on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the time for prevarication is over. More immediately, Bush is also signaling U.S. allies that he is prepared to go to war with Iraq without their approval.
The increasingly bellicose White House rhetoric puts the Bush administration sharply at odds with many of its European allies, particularly France, which has threatened to veto a second U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a war with Iraq over its weapons of mass destruction. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Bush's most loyal supporter, has called for U.N. weapons inspectors to be given the "time and space" to complete their work.
There remains a possibility that a "smoking gun" will emerge that would persuade the French and other allies of the case for early military action. For now, however, the United States faces the prospect of fighting a major war with little international support. Less than three months after winning a unanimous Security Council vote that gave Hussein one "last chance" to surrender his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the United States and Britain find themselves diplomatically isolated.
The White House hope is that a spirited show of U.S. determination will persuade reluctant allies to fall into line, rather than miss a chance to shape the future of the Middle East. In his remarks yesterday, Bush recalled predictions by "many of the punditry" before the Nov. 8 Security Council vote that "no one is going to follow the United States of America." In the end, he noted, the Security Council followed the American lead.
There is, however, a difference between the last time around and this time around, according to foreign policy analyst Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution. Although the Nov. 8 vote demanding that Iraq cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors was unanimous, it masked deep divisions among Security Council members over the threshold for military action against Iraq and the length of time inspections should be allowed to continue before declaring Baghdad to be in "material breach" of its obligations. As the possibility of war gets closer, these divisions have again burst into the open.
Bush and his advisers say they are determined to avoid a repeat of the cat-and-mouse game Iraq played with U.N. inspectors during the 1990s, when it dribbled out information about its weapons programs only under extreme duress. "Surely our friends have learned lessons from the past," Bush said, referring to French claims that Iraq is cooperating with the inspectors. "It appears to be a rerun of a bad movie. He is delaying. He is deceiving. He is asking for time. He is playing hide-and-seek with the inspectors."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin yesterday upped the challenge to Washington by saying that Paris planned to lobby other European nations to oppose early military action in Iraq. "It is important that Europe speak on this issue with a single voice," he told reporters after talks with his Belgian counterpart. "We are mobilized; we believe war can be avoided."
Recent polling data suggests that public opinion in both the United States and Europe is closer to the French position than that of the White House. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week found that seven in 10 Americans would give U.N. weapons inspectors months more to complete their work in Iraq, a finding in line with other public opinion surveys. According to a Gallup poll, Bush's approval rating for his handling of foreign policy has fallen from 75 percent to 52 percent over the past three months.
Many analysts believe that the polling data is illusory, at least in the case of the United States, since Americans will likely rally around the president once it becomes clear that U.S. forces are going into combat.
"It is the outcome of the war itself that will determine public support, not hypothetical polls in advance," said Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, who has supported the administration on its looming military confrontation with Iraq. "That is what leadership is all about. Roosevelt understood that in 1940-41; Bush senior understood it in the first Persian Gulf War; Clinton understood it over Bosnia and Kosovo," he said.
In the case of both the Bosnia and Kosovo wars, the Clinton administration did not have U.N. Security Council backing. It did, however, have fairly solid support among its NATO allies for military action, as well as the tacit agreement of Russia not to interfere. Barring a turnaround by France and other European countries, the United States would be heading into a second Persian Gulf war with less international support than an any time since the late Vietnam War era.
"The critical thing the Bush administration must do is to make a convincing case for action to the American and world public," Holbrooke said. "They have still not done an adequate job of making their case." He noted that the administration had "muddied the waters" by applying "double standards" to the Iraqi and Korean crises.
Several European diplomats said they believed that there was still "wiggle room" for France to reach agreement with the United States on the need for military action against Iraq, if presented with convincing evidence of clandestine Iraqi weapons programs. The diplomats noted that de Villepin used phrases such as "nothing today justifies a recourse to military action," implying that France's position could change tomorrow.
A refusal by France to endorse U.S. war plans would be a diplomatic embarrassment for Washington, but probably not a fatal obstacle, analysts said. Turkey appears likely to agree to host as many as 15,000 U.S. troops, a much smaller force than the original administration request, but enough to open up a northern front. Kuwait, Qatar and Oman would probably cooperate, and Saudi Arabia would provide logistical support, while maintaining a public distance from Washington.