Setting the record straight

Print edition : October 11, 2002

As the war drums start beating, the focus is on Congress as law-makers wrestle with the issue of the authorisation that the administration has sought in order to launch military action against Iraq.

THE ranting and raving of the Bush administration over Iraq that has now gone on for more than a year is not surprising at all, except that it has currently taken on a dangerous dimension with Washington poised in a direction that is clearly at odds with the thinking of the international community, irrespective of what may be dished out for public consumption.

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addresses members of Congress on U.S. policy on Iraq, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers looks on.-

To this Republican administration, Iraq has been an obsession of sorts with many people in the United States and elsewhere making the point that George Bush Jr. is trying to set straight the record of George Bush Sr., in the process "making up'' for a job that was seemingly left unfinished in 1991. That the Security Council Resolutions of 1990 and 1991 stopped with throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait is another matter. To many hardliners and critics of Bush Sr., the U.S. came away from the Gulf with an unfinished agenda. The present administration resents the remark that it is somehow keen on "finishing'' that agenda. Rather it has set, in a highly determined fashion, to open a new front in the ongoing War Against Terror.

Finding no linkages between Saddam Hussein and the horrific events of September 11, 2001 the White House believes that there is a link, only to be refuted by its agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation the Bush administration has focussed on terror through weapons of mass destruction.

Even before Bush walked into the United Nations headquarters to deliver his address on September 12, his administration had made up its mind. But this unilateralist approach had little-to-no support among the comity of nations, and for a while Washington gave the impression that it hardly mattered. Senior Cabinet officials the chief hawks led by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice-President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice were already upping the ante even while arguing in a roundabout fashion that the U.S. did indeed have support in the world.

Before Bush had his chance to present his case at the U.N., Secretary-General Kofi Annan took the podium to warn Washington of the dangers of ignoring the sentiments of the world body. Annan did not name the U.S., but the message could not have been clearer. "For any one state, large or small, choosing to follow or reject the multilateralist path must not be a simple matter of political convenience. It has consequences far beyond the immediate context,'' Annan warned. "When countries work in multilateral institutions, developing, respecting and, when necessary, enforcing international law, they also develop mutual trust and more effective cooperation on other issues,'' he argued. Annan quietly but forcefully put in perspective the legitimacy and role of the U.N. "Any state, if attacked, retains the inherent right of self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter. But beyond that when states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations,'' the Secretary-General remarked. These were direct references to the U.S. and the Bush administration.

Faced with increasing apprehensions at home that his administration is drifting steadily into war mode, ignoring the international community and charting a policy laced with political considerations read the congressional elections of November 5 Bush decided that he would put the immediate onus on the U.N. and pressure the Security Council to adopt a new Resolution that will be tough and have a short time-frame for unfettered weapons inspections in Iraq. But if all this did not work, the President was willing to go it alone against Iraq. Bush lashed out at the Saddam Hussein regime and listed all the Security Council Resolutions that it had flouted since 1990-91, but left no one in doubt about the future of American foreign policy under his watch.

"My nation will work with the U.N. Security Council to meet our common challenge... We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary Resolutions, but the purposes of the United States should not be doubted,'' Bush told the General Assembly. The address was received well in the U.N. and beyond. At least it seemed on September 12 that Bush was willing to give the world body one final chance to set the record straight with the Iraqis. Both in New York and Washington, the President was taunting the U.N. and the Security Council to show some "backbone''.

At the same time, the administration knew that for all the faults of Baghdad, it did have its supporters in the Council permanent members such as Russia that can veto any American or British-sponsored or authored resolution on Iraq. But in "working'' on the Russians like personally talking to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence Bush warned that the U.S. would "block'' the return of weapons inspectors in the absence of a "tough'' resolution. Knowing full well the challenges in New York, Bush and his advisers opened the domestic political front for themselves on Capitol Hill.

For an administration that has long argued that this President need not get a fresh congressional resolution authorising the use of force for it could revive the 1991 resolution , there was an about-face as well. Against the backdrop of surging popularity figures, Bush and Co turned their attention to Capitol Hill. The President's popularity may be on the rise but a growing number of people polled also argued that congressional authorisation was necessary for military action against Iraq. And if Bush turned the focus on Congress sceptics in his own party included he did it because he wanted it both ways. By pushing Congress for a quick resolution of support, the administration seeks to pressure the Security Council to move in the direction that Washington chooses. The U.S. wants one resolution that will include in it the consequences of not complying. The Russians and the French want two resolutions, the first laying out the conditions for weapons inspections; and the second to be taken up only if and when the Iraqis failed to comply.

Going by the ground realities on Capitol Hill, Bush will have his congressional resolution by the time law-makers adjourn for the campaigning for the November elections; and this will be sometime in the first week of October. If the President gets the desired U.N. resolution, that will be fine. But if he does not but has the resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq to defend American interests, Bush will argue that only this mattered. If he had both which is what he is striving for all the more better.

Supporters of the U.S. argue that Bush changed the dynamics of the situation by going before the world body and placing the immediate and longer term onus on the Security Council. But what many people are not willing to give credit for is the fact that Iraq too changed the dynamics by agreeing to unconditional and unfettered weapons inspections. The Iraqi turnabout did not come easily but as a result of pressure and lobbying by several Arab and European nations. This does not matter to the Bush administration and to the President, which not only see the Iraqi stance as being "deceitful and deceptive'' but an "old song'' that has been heard for 11 years.

Iraq, in the view of some people, is trying to fool the world all over again and this was not going to work this time around. As the war drums have started beating, the focus in the U.S. is on Congress as law-makers wrestle with the wording of their resolution, which in many ways will set the tune for the months to come. Democrats in Congress, who tried to argue that the administration was trying to sidetrack the issues of the day and bring in Iraq for political and electoral reasons, are beginning to fall in line.

Seeing the writing on the wall the consequences of not backing the President even the Democratic leadership is looking favourably at the draft congressional resolution that has come from the White House. "The President is authorised to use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force, in order to enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolutions, defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq and restore peace and security in the region,'' the draft resolution reads. Republicans are having little difficulty with the language.

"It looks pretty straightforward to me. It will pass overwhelmingly,'' says the senior Republican from Arizona, John McCain. And Democrats are making the point that there is "absolutely no difference of opinion'' over the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but they are only pushing for some changes. Particularly troubling to some Democrats such as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, is the broad language in the draft resolution that speaks of the President seeking to restore "peace and security in the region''. The apprehension is that the administration would use the language in a congressional authorisation to venture into other areas of West Asia, say Syria or Lebanon.

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