Bush plays for time as war of words engulfs Washington

The bellicose talk in Washington about a pre-emptive strike to topple Saddam Hussein masks a furious debate inside the Republican party.

Its outcome will determine the fate not just of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, but probably also of the system of managing international relations that has operated for half a century. It boils down to this: can America act unilaterally, or must it first win the support of allies and the blessing of the United Nations?

That President Saddam should be removed is accepted on all sides. The question is how – and the argument lays bare the familiar fault line within the Bush administration. It divides the unilateralist hawks, led by the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, from more cautious moderates, led by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and embracing the military brass and a host of Republican foreign policy mandarins, including James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser respectively to the first President Bush during the 1991 Gulf War.

The hawks base their argument on America's overwhelming military might. On its own, the US can defeat Iraq with no trouble; and once it makes clear it is going to do so, other countries will fall into line. Going through the UN and trying to secure the return of weapons inspectors just plays into the hands of Saddam, the master prevaricator.

Don't worry about the doubters – says Mr Rumsfeld – they wobbled before the 1991 Gulf War, before the 1999 Kosovo war, and before last year's campaign in Afghanistan. Yet each time, American power swept all before it, with minimal casualties. The same will happen in Iraq, sending beneficial shockwaves throughout the Arab world and beyond.

The moderates share the basic premises of the hawks. They agree President Saddam is a menace to his region, that he is in violation of a clutch of UN resolutions, that he has used weapons of mass destruction before, that is he pursuing them now and that, should he obtain a nuclear weapon, he will employ it as a means of blackmail. While it is hardly likely that President Saddam would attack the US directly, they acknowledge that he could quietly make such weapons available to al-Qa'ida or other terrorist groups.

What worries them is the aftermath if the US goes it alone. Mr Baker frets about the damage to America's international image and traditional alliances. General Scowcroft warns of a tide of anti-Americanism, and damage to the prospects of an Arab-Israeli settlement and to the anti-terror coalition.

Both insist a new mandate from the UN, or at the very least a sincere effort to obtain one, is needed before the US goes to war. General Powell shares these concerns, though he has yet to voice them in public.

Which leaves the man who must make the fateful decision: President Bush himself. There can be scant doubt his instincts are with the hardliners. He never wastes an opportunity to call for "regime change", the euphemism for military intervention in Iraq. He knows that war has been the reason for his sky-high approval ratings, lower now but still healthy. He knows also that to climb down now would damage his credibility and hand a moral victory to President Saddam.

But even Mr Bush's tin ear for what he scornfully dismisses as "the nuances" must be alive to the problems that would follow even a successful US intervention: a new surge of anti-Americanism, fuelling the hatred of Islamic extremists and would-be terrorists, the need for not just the "nation-building" that Mr Bush detests in Iraq, but for a physical American presence in Baghdad, probably for years.

And can the sputtering US economy withstand the surge in oil prices certain if, as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt warns, the entire Middle East descends into chaos? Reassurances on oil supplies were almost certainly Mr Bush's priority in his talks last week with the Saudi government.

Against the odds, the moderates may win the argument and prevail upon Mr Bush, for once, to eschew black-and-white and accept the world for the grey thing it is.

The message from Capitol Hill

James Baker Former secretary of state
25 August

"Seeking new [UN] authorisation now is necessary, politically and practically... We should try our best not to go it alone, and the President should reject the advice of those who counsel doing so."

Dick Cheney Vice-President
26 August

"The risks of inaction are far greater than the risks of action... And the entire world must know that we will take whatever action is necessary to defend our freedom and our security."

Donald Rumsfeld Defence Secretary
27 August

"It was not until each country got attacked that they said: 'Maybe Winston Churchill was right. Maybe that lone voice expressing concern about what was happening was right.'"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This winner of the best new business in Shrops...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This winner of the best new business in shrops...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Email Marketing Services

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are looking for a highly or...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultan...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders