A kinder, gentler war pitch

In a Monday night speech, President Bush shifted his rhetoric in an effort to seal the deal with a skeptical public.

Published October 9, 2002 4:50AM (EDT)

President Bush used a speech in Cincinnati Monday to relaunch his administration's policy toward Iraq in somewhat kinder, gentler tones than those sounded by administration officials throughout the summer and by the president himself in the weeks since the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Gone were the many mentions of regime change, or threats of unilateral action that marked Bush's speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12. Instead, Bush played up both the threat Saddam Hussein poses to the United States and the cooperation he has sought from Congress and the international community, while putting the polish on his push toward war in front of a live studio audience.

Call it Iraq 2.0.

In his 30-minute speech, Bush conceded he still has some work to do in convincing the American people that war against Iraq is necessary. "Many Americans have raised legitimate questions -- about the nature of the threat, about the urgency of actionabout the link between Iraq developing weapons of terror and the wider war on terror," he told guests invited by the White House to the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Bush adopted the tone of candor even as Democratic leaders  some of whom support the resolution authorizing force in Iraq expressed concern over the administration's roughshod approach to foreign policy. Democrats aren't the only ones who would like to see the administration focus on international support. A Monday New York Times/CBS News poll showed 67 percent of those asked said they support the use of force to topple Saddam. But 63 percent also said the U.S. should wait to give United Nations weapons inspectors a chance to go back to Baghdad.

That has done little to slow the White House campaign to win the approval of Congress for a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. But responding to those concerns, Bush directly addressed fears that the administration and Congress are rushing headlong into war. "Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable," he said. "The resolution will tell the United Nations, and all nations, that America speaks with one voice and is determined to make the demands of the civilized world mean something."

With Congressional approval a foregone conclusion, some analysts said before Mondays speech that it was a critical opportunity for Bush to seal the deal with the American public. "I think he's got to pull it all together, James Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason University, said in an interview. He's got to connect the war on terrorism with the war on Iraq. The question is: Will this help us in the war on terrorism? I think he has to convince us that it will."

Bush tried to do just that, making five mentions of Sept. 11 during the course of his speech, and laying out alleged links between Iraq and al-Qaida in making the case for taking the threat from Iraq seriously. Calling them "different faces of the same evil," Bush said Iraq posed a bigger threat to American security than even al-Qaida.

"The attacks of September 11th showed our country that vast oceans no longer protect us from danger. Before that tragic date, we had only hints of al-Qaida's plans and designs," Bush said. "Today in Iraq, we see a threat whose outlines are far more clearly defined, and whose consequences could be far more deadly."

Pfiffner said it was also an opportunity for the president to tell skeptics that he has been working with Democrats and U.S. allies to forge compromises in Congress and at the U.N.

Bush tried to answer those concerns with a new twist on what constitutes international support. The key is how he defined "multilateral," and in his new pitch, Bush made clear that does not necessarily mean action by the United Nations. While members of the U.N. Security Council have serious, lingering doubts about the need for military action in Iraq, the administration is trumpeting international support for its campaign.

Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer previewed the new White House pitch and emphasized that the U.S. would not be acting alone. "For those who question whether the United States will do anything unilaterally, the question is answered: The United States will not," he told reporters. "The only question is, will the United Nations take action or will the United States and the United Kingdom and others be part of a broad, international coalition that protects the peace?"

The upshot: If the White House fails to convince the Security Council to pass a tough new resolution condoning the use of force, the U.S. may be left in the odd position of fighting a war to enforce past U.N. resolutions -- without the U.N.s blessing.

But this speech was not about international diplomacy; it was aimed at the American public. Bush's advisors understand that speeches like the one he delivered Monday have served him well in the past. On Sept. 12, President Bush went before a skeptical United Nations and the American public and made convincing argument that the international body should focus its attention on Saddam. By couching his arguments in terms of international law, the president quieted many of his critics, for a time at least, by showing them that Bush the Cowboy could also play the role of diplomatic coalition-builder.

But at the heart of that speech was threat: If the U.N. did not enforce its past resolutions against Iraq, the U.S. would take action on its own. That type of language was obviously downplayed Monday's speech. The focus instead was on disarming Saddam, not necessarily on regime change. This type of relaunch of a refined message is not uncommon, according to Dan Wirls, professor of American politics at University of California-Santa Cruz.

"During the Gulf War, there were periodic retoolings of the justification," Wirls said. It took the administration of Bushs father quite a while to get a fixed message for what was crucial about Iraq, before they settled on the liberation of Kuwait. Even then, they tried to fix on what they thought would be the right message."

Indeed, this assessment from the Sept. 2, 1990 Washington Post sounds like it could have come from this months headlines. "Bush is trying to cast the confrontation in more international terms, as 'the world against Saddam' and as a portent for a new era following the end of the Cold War, the Post wrote then. According to those involved in the administration's planning, several factors are dictating this approach. One is the need for some breathing room until the largest military buildup in decades is completed, and to give time for another round of diplomacy. Another is the administration's need to respond to the concerns of allied nations and Congress, both jittery about a precipitous slide toward conflict. A third is the desire to focus on long-term objectives that are realistic and acceptable at home and abroad."

The tweaking of the current Iraq message also seems to be an effort to shield Bush from criticisms that his is a kind of cowboy foreign policy. This critique began with his decision to withdraw from international treaties like the Kyoto Protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and continues to be used by his opponents today.

As if on cue, U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a potential White House contender in 2004, gave a speech in Washington accusing the administration of "gratuitous unilateralism," and charging that Bush's apparent disregard for the concerns of U.S. allies hurts the nation on the international stage.

"The problem is that in word and deed, the administration frequently sends the message that others don't matter," Edwards said. "It rightly demands that our allies back efforts vital to America's interests, but then shows disdain for cooperative endeavors and agreements important to theirs. Indeed, it often treats allies as an afterthought."

Another possible White House contender, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said Monday he would like to see more discussion about what Iraq may look like after Saddam Hussein is gone. "If, in the aftermath, we leave the Iraqi people to fend for themselves in chaos and squalor, without more freedom or opportunity, we will end up hindering, not advancing, the wider war against terrorism and slowing, not speeding, the world's march toward democracy and the rule of law," he said.

But Lieberman spokesman Adam Kavacovich said Monday that a commitment to rebuilding Iraq was not a precondition for Lieberman's support of the resolution authorizing force to disarm Saddam.

In his speech Monday, Bush formally abandoned his campaign position against nation-building -- a position he took to criticize the Clinton administration's policy in the Balkans. If military action is necessary," Bush said, "the United States and our allies will help the Iraqi people rebuild their economy, and create the institutions of liberty in a unified Iraq at peace with its neighbors."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al-qaida George W. Bush Iraq Middle East Terrorism United Nations