Bush's bold gambit, awkward spot

Top US officials push the UN to pass a single tough resolution on Iraq, including threat of force, by week's end.

When it comes to the White House strategy on Iraq, going global has its downside: Involve the rest of the world, and it might not agree with you.

President Bush may have received applause for his United Nations diplomacy last week. But the current split on the UN Security Council points out just how risky his tough stance on Iraq is, and how, in the end, the US could still be going head-to-head with Saddam Hussein largely on its own.

Already there's a strong difference of opinion on whether Iraq's offer of inspections "without conditions" needs to be explored. Russia, China, France, and Arab nations believe the offer to be promising. The US and Britain don't agree – and that's not even touching the issue down the road on whether inspectors – if they go – are getting what they need.

"The problem is that now Bush may have to say that this isn't working, although the UN is saying ostensibly this is working," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M in College Station. "If our allies abandon us, and they say, 'We think this is going well,' that makes it more awkward."

It's awkward, too, because Americans are not enthusiastic about a US-led invasion without United Nations approval. According to a CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup poll taken after the president's UN speech last week, 47 percent of Americans say the US should send ground troops only with UN support, compared to 37 percent who believe it's OK to go ahead without it.

The degree of international support may also be important in winning backing for any future attack on Iraq in Congress. To be sure, leaders on both sides of the aisle are exuding a high degree of public unity on the issue.

Even Democratic leaders are saying they can now meet the president's demand and get him a resolution before lawmakers go home to campaign for the November elections.

But some Democrats say they want some restrictions on the president's ability to strike – namely that the US receive the UN's blessing or at least the involvement of key allies. The White House, on the other hand, wants broad discretion to handle Mr. Hussein as it sees fit.

No immediate bridging of that gulf was evident yesterday when congressional leaders emerged from an early morning meeting in the Oval Office with Mr. Bush. Both sides emphasized the positive. The president called their willingness to push through a resolution quickly an "important signal" of unity for the country and the world. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota said Republicans and Democrats would work in concert – "hopefully with a recognition that this ought to be done in the international arena...."

AT the UN, the administration hopes to get a tough resolution – spelling out a timetable, standards, and consequences for Iraqi compliance – on the table by the end of the week. The White House is expected to release its proposed wording on a congressional resolution within a day or two as well.

While leaders in the US and overseas debate the next nuance and wording of resolutions, the White House is stepping up its campaign to convince the world of the need to oust the Iraqi leader – quickly. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday, spoke gravely of the consequences of inaction.

"No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq," he said.

In prepared remarks, he also noted: "Do you believe it is our responsibility to wait for a nuclear, chemical or biological 9/11? Or is it the responsibility of free people to do something now – to take steps to deal with the threat before we are attacked."

Yet pursuing a "regime change" in Iraq does come with its risks for the administration. David Gergen, a White House adviser to four presidents, both Democrat and Republican, considers the president's commitment to disarming and removing Hussein "the biggest risk he's taken" in his presidency – calling the tax cut (and not the attack on Afghanistan) the second biggest.

While it's a gamble "worth taking," and one the president has handled well so far, Mr. Gergen says potential difficulty lies in the UN getting bogged down in the details of a resolution. "The harder question," he says, "is will they be willing to go with a tough resolution, or want something wiggly."

Beyond that, he cites the question of inspectors and whether there will be a substantial difference of opinion on whether they are able to do their job.

Indeed, the whole issue of inspectors is fraught with potential problems. Some experts say inspectors would need at least five months to fully launch operations in Iraq, and up to a year to assess their findings. The White House, on the other hand, is still insisting on months.

Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, points to the president's insistence on removing Hussein from power as a major gamble. "Bush may have painted himself into a corner by personalizing the dispute," says Mr. Light, especially if the UN settles on a solution less than war.

• Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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