Why US won't give way on Iraq

Bush's speech Monday reveals how much America, not Hussein, has changed.

As the Bush administration intensifies its indictment of Saddam Hussein, it is focusing not so much on new charges as on old information presented in a new context.

From the president on down, administration officials may in essence be saying this: The current Iraqi regime is not suddenly more dangerous than it used to be. It's just that in the wake of 9/11, we're no longer going to tolerate the risks it has posed all along.

In other words, it isn't President Hussein that has changed. It is us.

"On Sept. 11, 2001, America felt its vulnerability even to threats that gather on the other side of the earth," said President Bush on Monday. "We resolved then and we are resolved today to confront every threat from any source that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America."

But 9/11 arguably affected attitudes in Washington and New York more than much of the rest of the nation. Polls on public attitudes toward a preemptive war with Iraq thus produce mixed results. The nation as a whole does not yet appear convinced that such a fight is an inevitable element of any broad-based war on terror.

"American attitudes have changed, but not as much as the president believes," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Americans do refuse to live in fear, as the president said, but fear of Iraq is not high on the list of American concerns, frankly."

In recent days the White House has undertaken a concerted campaign to publicize its case for an Iraq war.

Mr. Bush's speech to the nation on Monday night was only one element of this campaign. Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made much the same case, point by point, in appearances before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated some elements in similar congressional testimony.

The basic outline of the argument is well known: Iraq is attempting to acquire biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Its leader is a murderous thug, and this makes it more dangerous than Iran, North Korea, or other states suspected of clandestine attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Bush's speech contained a few new details, such as a charge that Iraq is acquiring both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles capable of disseminating deadly chemicals. But on the whole the administration has not produced evidence that Hussein is more dangerous now than he was when George W. Bush took office.

"There is no striking new information that should lead us to believe that Iraq is any more of a threat today than it was two, three, or four years ago," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

Instead of new dangers, the administration is emphasizing new sensitivities. It is not that Hussein is suddenly more risky. It is that the White House has decided it can no longer tolerate the risks that the US government has long known he has posed.

On one level the White House makes this case by attempting to explicitly link Hussein and Al Qaeda. Bush charged, for instance, that a top Al Qaeda leader has fled to Baghdad for medical treatment.

"The links that he tried to draw between Iraq and Al Qaeda seemed to be tenuous," says Mr. Kimball. "He was describing what is essentially a possibility."

But possibilities appear to be precisely the point, as far as the administration is concerned. Uncertainty is no longer cause for inaction. Given that Hussein has supported terrorism in the past, and that his drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction will likely pay off at some point in the future, the US has no option but preemption, in the White House view.

"We have entered a new security environment, one that is dramatically different than the one we grew accustomed to over the past half century," Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told Congress last week. "We have entered a world in which ... our margin of error is notably different."

But this stark view of the necessity to confront Iraq is not one that the public completely shares – at least, not yet.

A Gallup poll released Tuesday found a bare majority of 53 percent of respondents favoring an invasion of Iraq.

That figure represents a decline from the 61 percent of respondents who favored such an attack in June. A year ago the comparable figure was 74 percent.

"Americans are much more worried about the economy than Iraq – or, in the Washington area, about crazed snipers," says Mr. Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment.

• Liz Marlantes and Gail Chaddock contributed to this report from Washington.

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