America's PR drive for war backfires

Kofi Annan travels to Baghdad for last ditch peace mission as US is forced to sell prospect of air strikes to sceptical public
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AS THE United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, headed to Baghdad on his last-ditch effort to preserve peace in the Gulf, the United States administration was forced to embark on a last-ditch mission of its own: "selling" the prospect of air strikes to a hesitant and sceptical American public all over again.

The all-out campaign to restore the credibility of the US military option followed the spectacular failure of a televised "town-hall" style debate on Wednesday, at Ohio State University, when US policy was repeatedly, and noisily, challenged.

Vietnam-style anti-war protesters disrupted proceedings with heckling and chants of "One, two, three, four, we don't want your racist war", and participants questioning the reasons for US belligerence towards Iraq came close to flooring some of the most senior members of President Bill Clinton's administration: the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, the Defense Secretary, William Cohen, and the national security adviser, Sandy Berger.

President Clinton delayed a visit to Baltimore to restate on television the reasons and objectives of any US military action against Iraq and insist that he had popular support. "I believe strongly that most Americans support our policy," he said. "They support our resolve."

Stressing yet again the US bottom line for a settlement, he said Iraq had to agree to "free and unfettered access to all suspected weapons sites anywhere in Iraq". Saddam Hussein had agreed to these terms at the end of the Gulf War and "he simply must adhere to that standard".

Vice-President Al Gore delayed a trip to South Africa to be "on hand" in Washington for meetings of the national security team "at this critical time".

Ms Albright travelled to Nashville, Tennessee, to address a university audience on the need to keep air strikes as an option against Iraq. Both she and the US ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, did the rounds of the breakfast television shows, defending US policy and the virtues of democracy and free speech.

Back in Washington, the White House made known plans for a blitz by administration officials on the Sunday television talkshows and held open the possibility of a televised presidential address from the Oval office.

The Ohio debate, planned as an exercise in popular diplomacy for the US "heartland" and televised around the world by CNN - the cable and satellite channel known to be watched by Iraqi leaders - only showed how divided US public opinion was about the prospect of military action. Asked yesterday whether President Saddam would be "emboldened" by this demonstration, Mr Clinton retorted: "Not if he understands the first thing about America.' He described it as "a good old-fashioned American debate".

The failure of the Ohio State meeting, however, was widely acknowledged, with one White House official saying that it had been "like watching a car crash take place before your eyes".

Iraq crisis, pages 12 and 13