Subtle shift on 'regime change'?

For Bush, the heavily used phrase may have taken on shades of meaning beyond merely the ouster of Hussein.

For months, whenever President Bush spoke of "regime change" in Iraq, the assumption was he meant Saddam Hussein had to go.

Now, Mr. Bush is signaling he could accept a world where Mr. Hussein – though a fully disarmed Hussein – remains the man in charge in Iraq.

Just as the president shifted in the months after 9/11 from a focus on Osama bin Laden to saying the chief enemy was not one man but international terrorism, he seems to be saying now that the aim is not removing one man but disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

The new stance, hinted at in a buried line in Bush's speech Monday, suggests a retreat from the ambitious – and for some critics worrisome – goals that the president had previously set out for Iraq, including democracy and full respect for human rights. Indeed, for both domestic and foreign skeptics, a disarmed Iraq is one thing, but an Iraq remade in America's image is quite another.

That may explain why Bush, after laying out the demanding steps that Iraq must take to disarm and to divorce itself from terrorism, added: "These steps would also change the nature of the Iraq regime itself. America hopes the regime will make that choice."

In part, the president's subtle backoff from the "Saddam must go" line may be a tactical move to improve prospects for tough action on Iraq, both in the US Congress and the United Nations Security Council. Yet even if it is a tactical move, the new stance appears to give some additional time to administration forces favoring international action and war only as a last resort.

It wasn't just happenstance that Bush's change of tack came a few days after Secretary of State Colin Powell, considered the administration's "chief dove," declared that "regime change" – US policy on Iraq since the Clinton administration – does not necessarily mean that Hussein would have to be deposed.

"This was a Powell-esque softening of the previous position, perhaps to let those around Saddam know how a war could be avoided, but certainly another audience was the UN Security Council," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The thinking was undoubtedly that this will make it easier to garner support for a new weapons-inspections resolution there."

Just how long the "war as last resort" forces will hold the upper hand remains unclear. Bush himself said in his speech that he had "little reason to expect" Hussein to fulfill the full disarmament demands he faces. He said that this is why both his and the Clinton administration's have seen regime change in Iraq as the "only means of removing a great danger to our nation."

Most observers say Bush still believes that Hussein is incapable of doing what would be necessary to avoid a war, but they say Bush still wants to convince the world he is not a wild-eyed warmonger.

"Bush's words, in that sense, weren't even so much about Saddam. They were about Bush and his desire to convince people that he is a reasonable man, that he doesn't want war," says Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "What hasn't changed is his thinking on whether Saddam Hussein will do what he'd have to [do] to avoid a war."

Seeing Bush's focus on this point is drawing the broadest national and international support possible, he adds. "It remains true that you draw more flies with honey than with vinegar."

One administration official says the president's language on regime change reflects the importance the US and the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council place on achieving "council unity" if it's possible. But he says the administration powers that have little patience for the "Powell line" – particularly in the Pentagon and in the vice president's office – won't stand by indefinitely.

Carnegie's Mr. Wolfsthal says it isn't coincidence that the normally expansive Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of Defense, has been unusually quiet over recent days. "I think somebody looked at what the president wants to accomplish at this point and said, 'Don, take a vacation.' "

But officials inside the administration said they don't expect the "war is inevitable" camp to remain quiet for long. "I give the [Security] Council to the end of the month [to agree on a new weapons-inspection resolution], no more," the official says. "After that, all bets are off on holding the other forces – call them the hawks or the unilateralists – at bay."

Mr. Phillips says he does see a risk in the US backing down from regime change as removal of Hussein. "I still think the only way to be certain that Iraq is disarmed is to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein, but Powell has convinced Bush there is another way, at least for now."

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