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Cheney Speech Seen Setting Path to War
28 August 2002
The Bush administration has set itself on a "path toward war" against Iraq with Vice President Dick Cheney's forceful speech on Monday, accelerating the campaign to win over allies to oust Saddam Hussein, conservative and liberal analysts agreed yesterday.
"The debate is over," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a former senior official in the first Bush presidency whose views are influential with members of the current administration. "It marks a transition from an administration weighing what to do to an administration beginning to make its case at home and abroad over the next two or three weeks in favor of an attack."
Cheney, who delivered the address Monday to the 103d National Convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars with little advance fanfare, called Iraq a mortal threat and said that Iraq was systematically building up offensive weapons of mass destruction "for the purpose of inflicting death on a massive scale."
Former congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a Democrat and former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said Cheney's speech "sets us on a path toward war. It will be very difficult now for the administration to back down from Cheney's speech. It will no longer be a question of whether or not we go to war," but when.
But Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said yesterday that US diplomats were not yet trying to garner support around the world for an attack against Iraq because the Bush administration has not made any decisions.
"The president has not decided," Boucher said. "So there's no option to enlist people's support for. There's no war drums to beat. There is no particular course of action that we're trying to sell right now."
But many conservative and liberal observers said that Cheney's speech signaled a major defeat for more moderate voices in the State Department, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who has remained largely quiet publicly on the issue over the past several weeks.
The president has called for Hussein to be toppled. Iraq has refused to allow UN weapons inspectors to return to the country, and the administration has accused Iraq of rebuilding chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons and of supporting terrorism.
The administration's tough talk against Hussein and Iraq has caused concern among Arab allies who oppose an attack.
Yesterday, Bush hosted Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan and his family in a gesture analysts said was intended to project strong US-Saudi ties.
The relationship has become strained in recent months over disagreements on the Middle East peace process. Saudi officials have said they will not allow US planes to use their air bases to launch an attack on Iraq.
Bush pledged to consult with Saudi Arabia and other countries as he approaches a decision on whether to attack Iraq.
"On the topic of Iraq, the president stressed that he has made no decisions, that he will continue to engage in consultations with Saudi Arabia and other nations about steps in the Middle East, steps in Iraq," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Fleischer added that the president "made very clear again that he believes that Saddam Hussein is a menace to world peace, a menace to regional peace, and that the world and the region will be safer and better off without Saddam Hussein."
Kristol, along with other conservative Republicans, said yesterday that Cheney's speech "greatly accelerates" the timetable for debate in Congress on the issue as well as the possible start of a war. He and others also said it appeared to signal the ascendancy inside the administration of several hawks who have pushed for an attack against Iraq. Those include two leaders at the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy.
"As a follow-up to Cheney's speech, there will be the events on Sept. 11, and the president's remarks that day," Kristol said. "While he will talk about the remembrance of those who died, I think he also will give a sense that we are in a long war with much more to be done, that it will require sacrifice in the future. Then, on Sept. 12, Bush speaks to the UN General Assembly, and it will be an obvious time to make the case for foreign governments."
Cheney probably intended the speech as a way to gauge reaction for a military strike prior to Bush tackling the subject publicly, said a State Department official who requested anonymity. Cheney said arguments against a preemptive attack were misguided and said if the world waited until there was proof that Hussein possessed nuclear weapons, it would have waited too long. But the vice president presented no new evidence that Iraq has been tied to recent terror attacks, including Sept. 11, or that Iraq was planning any attacks.
Hamilton, an appointed member of the president's Homeland Advisory Council, said he saw no other options ahead but a plan for a military attack. "You simply cannot back down from this kind of speech. This lays it out. If Bush runs for office in 2004, and has not brought down the regime," he will have trouble in his campaign, Hamilton said. "This speech comes very close to a declaration of war."
Jay C. Farrar, a former senior defense official and now an analyst at the centrist think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed. "This is the opening public salvo of the administration saying we are going to go, although I don't think they are going to go in a month. I think it's still a few months off," Farrar said.
But he said that Cheney's speech now presents thorny problems for Powell, especially if the secretary of state tries to counter with administration hawks on how to proceed.
"It's making his job extremely difficult because he's the poor guy trying to hold things together on the front line" of diplomacy, Farrar said. "It doesn't help when all these folks espousing this policy, like Richard Perle and Kristol and others, do not have official standing in the administration and yet carry more influence than he does." Perle is chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board.
For conservatives outside the administration, Cheney's speech was extraordinarily well received - with one caveat: They wish he had made the speech months ago.
"We declared almost a year ago that we would punish Iraq after Sept. 11," said Meyraw Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute. "If the Iraqis have been involved in Sept. 11, and the administration claims that is the case, they should have been punished before now."
John Donnelly and Susan Milligan, Washington