PR war over Iraq escalates

Bush promises to make a forceful case to Congress and UN as allies balk at plans to topple Hussein.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

President Bush is preparing to make his case to the court of world opinion for "regime change" in Iraq. But these are not the best of times for the US to be selling the idea of using military force to change the government of another country – even if it is one run by the likes of Saddam Hussein.

With much of the world having lost whatever sympathy surged for the US in the wake of 9/11, and with fears rising of the world's sole superpower too often acting alone on foreign issues, Washington's tough talk on Iraq is resurrecting images of a warmongering America.

Many foreign leaders, in particular, agreed this week with Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela when he said he was "appalled" by America's willingness to act alone against another country. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is finding his sagging reelection campaign buoyed by his shift to tough talk of his own – against American war drums.

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Part of the international hostility stems from what British Prime Minister Tony Blair Tuesday called "straightforward anti-Americanism."

For its part, Iraq has set its own PR machine in motion – with some success. As US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted this week, the Iraqis are talented at "play[ing] the international community and the UN process like a guitar, plucking the right string at the right moment to delay something."

With polls showing a majority of Americans favor military action to remove President Hussein from power – provided the US has the support of allies and partners in the region – the Bush administration's case for toppling him becomes all the more crucial, even when making the case for an international audience has become more complex.

For some international observers, any judgment of how the US is doing at selling its case is premature, since Washington has yet to really begin consulting its allies on Iraq.

But that is about to change. Saying "the process starts now," Mr. Bush said at the White House Wednesday that he would use his speech to the UN General Assembly Sept. 12 to begin making the case to the world for action against Iraq. Bush spoke as he began a campaign to woo congressional support for tackling Hussein.

Tough sell for the US

Many, however, say the US will find international misgivings on the issue much harder to overcome today than it was preceding the Gulf War a decade ago – and for reasons that have nothing to do with Iraq's PR talents.

"People are worried about more war in the Middle East: They're fearful when they see the US eager to use force against countries it doesn't like, and that's not because the Iraqis are great at playing the guitar," says Stephen Walt, an international relations expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "It's because people are convinced war with Iraq is going to cause more trouble than ... it solves."

Mr. Walt ticks off a list of reasons the US is in "much worse" standing with the world than in 1990-91 – starting with talk of a policy of preemptive military action. "Then Iraq had engaged in an unprovoked attack on an independent state, but now the situation is almost completely reversed," he says. "It's the US contemplating an attack" on a country that has violated various UN resolutions "but is still more or less behaving itself."

Attacking Iraq also risks diverting attention and resources from the war with Al Qaeda, which the world sees as a legitimate fight. With many nations convinced a policy of containing Iraq has worked pretty well, a US attack might raise suspicions of American motives.

Still, other observers believe the US can make a convincing case for taking on Hussein – provided it works through the UN Security Council. That view is backed up by some recent polling in Europe. It shows public opposition there to any US military action shifting to support, if it is backed by UN resolutions.

"In fact it would be relatively easy [for Washington] to make the case and line up the necessary political support, though maybe not military support, for a strike against the Iraqi regime," says Klaus Becher, a transatlantic expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "But the key is to use the Security Council."

Iraq's history of violating UN resolutions sets the stage for Council action, he says.

"The argument hasn't hit home in Washington that if you want to use preemptive force, the only way to do it is through the Security Council," he continues. Besides the other convincing arguments that could be made, Mr. Becher adds, Council members would likely go along "because it wouldn't be the challenge to the international order that the US acting unilaterally would be."

Olive branch from Europe

Along those lines, foreign ministers of the 15-member European Union are advancing a plan for a Security Council resolution: It would allow for Iraq to be attacked if it didn't meet a deadline for allowing in international weapons inspectors. The plan is seen as an attempt by Europe to bridge differences with Washington.

In his comments this week, Mr. Blair showed support for Bush, arguing for tough action against Hussein. He said much of the recent debate would leave one "to think that we're dealing with some benign little democracy out in Iraq."

But Becher says the problem is that Washington has yet to give world leaders the detailed arguments they need to convince their own publics. "Without that they would be accused of being Washington's poodle," he says, "as Tony Blair has been."

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