Palace Intrigue

President Bush had tried to project an aura of moral clarity about his aim to disarm Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. But even he, like many other people, has stumbled in the dark in recent months, not always sure of the path ahead.

At first, Mr. Bush didn't want to ask approval for war from Congress or the United Nations. Now he seeks resolutions from both bodies. His military planners still appear divided and puzzled over how to win a war with minimal losses. A plan to restore postwar Iraq lacks key support, details, and budget projections.

Even Bush's evidence against Iraq to justify a preemptive attack keeps shifting with elusive certainty. The White House claimed only last week that high-level Al Qaeda detainees reported that Iraq trained the terrorist group in chemical warfare. Without more corroboration, that claim is as thin a reed for war as was President Johnson's claim of a North Vietnamese attack on a US ship in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Even many of Bush's opponents in Congress and world capitals change their conditions, step by stumbling step, for supporting a war.

First, they say the current UN containment of Iraq is working. But then, as White House pressure builds, they support some sort of "regime change" in Baghdad but question Bush's timing in seeking war just before a US election.

And now many critics say a preemptive attack may be necessary but the US must first seek some sort of moral justification by getting a UN stamp of approval. Even that will require one last-ditch ultimatum for unfettered weapons inspections in Iraq. Bush officials, too, now talk less of regime change and more of simply disarming Iraq.

All of which, this week, brought Bush and his UN opponents to an issue faced in a 1998 standoff with Iraq: whether Hussein's many palaces, where he may be hiding weapons and weapons-production, are off-limits.

In short, will UN inspectors be able to barge into Hussein's many bedrooms?

In 1998, the UN flinched and gave the palaces a pass. Now, with the US looking to stop any potential terrorist threat after the Sept. 11 attacks, the UN can't so easily let Iraq off the hook.

Uncertainties may continue to lie everywhere: in Iraq's capabilities and intentions, in whether Bush will go it alone in war, and in whether the UN will justify wars on nations that have only the potential and history of attacking others.

In 1990-91, Bush's father spent months persuading the US and UN to liberate Kuwait from Iraq. That was an easier sell. Too many uncertainties lie in the son's path.

Short of strong moral justification for or against a new war, the president and his opponents are battling simply with tactical persuasion and diplomatic pressure to win a wide consensus. The moral clarity still is missing.

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