As the biggest American military force assembled since the 1991 Gulf War awaits orders to attack, the Clinton administration is going on the offensive to shore up support at home for possible airstrikes on Iraq.
From a televised speech yesterday to unprecedented town hall meetings in Ohio and Tennessee, Mr. Clinton's foreign-policy team is employing the same marketing tools to sell his Iraq strategy he uses to promote day care and other initiatives.
The message this time: If 11th-hour diplomacy fails, dictator Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to defy the United Nations effort to eliminate his ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Says Clinton: "We don't believe, if diplomacy fails, that we can walk away."
While polls show most Americans favor military action - even removing Saddam - Clinton is not taking public support for granted amid growing opposition at home and abroad. This, after all, would be the first time in history that a nation goes to war with the untried goal of halting the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons.
"The American people are supportive, but that support could wane if there are casualties and an ill-defined mission," says a senior US official.
Accordingly, Clinton is using his outreach effort to counter critics in Congress and elsewhere who argue that airstrikes will not free Iraq's 23 million people from Saddam's tyranny, or eliminate the threat he poses to international stability.
The public-relations drive is also aimed at steeling Americans against the images of destruction and casualties - US and Iraqi - that they will likely confront on their television sets should Clinton order American ships and aircraft to strike.
"We have a responsibility, when we are prepared to put sons and daughters at risk, to explain fully to the American people why we feel this is necessary," says another administration official.
The administration's effort comes as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was considering flying to Baghdad in a final attempt to end the crisis that began in November, when Iraq blocked weapons inspections by the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM). The new initiative focuses on a proposal by Russia, France, and other nations that diplomats from the five permanent UN Security Council members accompany UNSCOM inspectors on searches of Saddam's palaces and other "sensitive" sites. It is designed to assuage Iraqi charges that UNSCOM spies on behalf of the US.
US bargaining position
The US, however, insists that Mr. Annan abide by strict negotiating guidelines that reject any resolution not giving UNSCOM free and unlimited access to sites, in line with accords Iraq signed to end the Gulf War. UNSCOM must certify that all of Iraq's illegal weapons programs have ended before the country can be relieved of crushing UN economic sanctions.
Clinton and his top aides are stressing that diplomacy is the best way to ensure the destruction of what UNSCOM believes are large, hidden stockpiles in Iraq of chemical and biological weapons components. Short of that, they say, military force must be employed to dissuade Iraq, and any other would-be proliferators, from pursuing programs for large-scale weapons of mass-destruction.
US officials say that attacks with pinpoint missiles and bombs on suspected illegal-arms facilities can "significantly degrade" Iraq's ability to "reconstitute" its warfare programs.
Furthermore, they say strikes on Iraq's military, including the elite Republican Guard, will eliminate the threat Saddam poses to his neighbors in the Gulf - source of 55 percent of the world's oil.
Yet it has taken weeks for the administration to clearly define those goals. In the meantime, the American public has heard strong opposition to the use of force from Russia, France, and Arab states. Nor can Americans draw comfort, as they did in the Gulf War, from belonging to a huge international military coalition.
Apprehensions also surfaced in Congress, forcing it to adjourn last week without passing the resolution of support it traditionally provides to a president preparing to send US troops into harm's way.
Criticism in Congress is divided between those who say airstrikes will not force Saddam from power and those who argue they will only bring new distress to millions of ordinary Iraqis suffering under UN sanctions. "The administration has failed to provide Congress with an adequate rationale for its plan to conduct 'substantial' airstrikes against Iraq," says Sen. Rod Grams (R) of Minnesota. "The administration should come forward with an endgame before the Senate offers its support."
Opposition is also being voiced in other sectors of the US mainstream, including by religious leaders, former military and intelligence officers, and Arab-American groups.
The critics appear to be making inroads. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup Poll, released Feb. 16, says 54 percent of Americans favor more diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, up from 46 percent two weeks ago. Some administration officials concede that Clinton may have taken too much time to define the goals of military action. The PR drive, they say, should stem a further drop in support.