Former president Bill Clinton, who has generally supported the Bush administration's Iraq policy in recent remarks, called on his successor yesterday to accept a more relaxed timeline in exchange for support from a majority of U.N. Security Council members.
Clinton's speech to a meeting of union leaders in Washington, appeared to be the first time the former president has publicly espoused an approach substantially different from the administration's stance. As fevered negotiations continued around the world yesterday, the Bush administration held to a short, stern schedule for resolving the question of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's compliance with U.N. disarmament orders. Wavering members of the Security Council and other interested countries at the United Nations have proposed deadlines extending into April, while permanent council members France and Russia have opposed deadlines of any kind.
Clinton warmly praised British Prime Minister Tony Blair and endorsed his proposal to set five specific benchmarks that Hussein must meet to prove that he is disarming. The former president also said chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix should set the timetable for compliance. "Then I would hope the United States would agree to that amount of time, whatever it is," he said.
While being careful to say that he feels President Bush is sincere in his pursuit of U.N. support, Clinton added: "The question is, do they want the support bad enough to let Mr. Blix finish his work and give enough time to do that?"
In a Democratic Party split over the issue of Iraq, the former president remains one of the most potent and compelling spokesmen. And he has generally sided with the party's hawks, endorsing the move to disarm Iraq while promoting the need for more skillful diplomacy along the way.
Last month, for example, Clinton told NBC's "Today" co-host Katie Couric that Hussein is "a murderer, a liar and a thug" who "is going to have to disarm . . . if he wants to avoid war." To CNN's Larry King, Clinton said Bush is "doing the right thing now."
Clinton agreed with the Bush administration that the United States is justified in using military force to disarm Iraq. "I don't think the president needs another Security Council resolution, as a matter of international law," he told Couric.
At the same time, Clinton has urged Bush to try hard for U.N. support. His remarks to leaders of the Communications Workers of America yesterday were a more vigorous version of that advice.
"I'm not so sure we can't still avoid war and disarm Saddam Hussein," Clinton said, "but we've all got to be together. We can't waive the option of using force, but we ought to do this in a way that brings the world together, not divides it."
As he often does, Clinton grew expansive in discussing the long-range ramifications of U.S. actions in Iraq. Given the rate of growth in the economies of some developing nations, the United States may not be the world's leading economic power by mid-century, he said. "And then we will be judged on how we behave now, at this moment," he said.
Clinton told his audience: "What I think you should be for, as Americans, is getting the U.N. to adopt a resolution that is not political on either side -- that just asks Hans Blix, the arms inspector, an honest, competent man, 'How long will it take you to verify that Iraq has or has not done these five things that are in Prime Minister Blair's resolution?' "
That may mean a long, taxing deployment for U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region -- "a big headache," Clinton acknowledged. But "it's worth it to disarm Saddam and keep the world community together."
Defenders of Bush's Iraq policy have argued that it was Clinton, in 1998, who first argued that "regime change" is the only way to ensure disarmament in Iraq.
Staff researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.