Bush's blueprint for future conceals a declaration of war
By Rupert Cornwell in Washington
[The Independent - 28 February 2003]
There were a few conditionals at the start, describing what "would" happen if an American-led coalition were to invade Iraq. There was the obligatory expression of hope that Baghdad will "meet the demands of the UN and disarm fully and peacefully". But that pretence quickly vanished. Within a minute or two, it wasn't "would" but "will" – what will happen when Saddam Hussein's regime is destroyed and the American military runs Iraq.
President Bush's words on Wednesday can be read in many keys: as a breathtaking exercise in Pollyanna-ism; as a deft renewal of America's commitment to a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians, amounting to far less than met the eye; as an attempt to persuade a disbelieving world that he is a man of peace, not of war; and as an unconvincing bid to show that America still believes in the Security Council.
But in one respect, Mr Bush was utterly unambiguous. Forget the "ifs" and "buts" and "mights". Even before the first leaks appeared yesterday of what promises to be a damning new report by Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, Mr Bush made clear America was going to war, some time in the middle of next month. In short, just as he has intended for ages, at a moment dictated by temperatures in the Gulf and the impending presidential election campaign at home.
The President spoke in familiar style (except, for once, there were no references to God). He was measured, almost serene in his confidence in his own judgement. No wonder those who deal with Mr Bush's people complain that for American officials these days, "consult" means to listen to what allies have to say – and then go ahead with whatever they originally planned anyway.
None the less, the speech to the American Enterprise Institute – a think-tank with close personal and intellectual ties to his administration – was one of the most important of his presidency. Yes, as his aides promised beforehand, it was "broadbrush". It dealt in generalities, grand themes and noble visions, rather than the nitty gritty of dirty deals, of dollars and cents, on which such visions tend to founder. But it offered an insight into the thinking that drives the Bush agenda.
Critics will dismiss the rhetoric as a familiar example of US self-interest, grudgebearing and paranoia clothed in a pious idealism. But the idealism is not entirely phoney.
Long before Mr Bush took office, powerful officials such as Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, saw the toppling of President Saddam not just as overdue completion of a job mistakenly called off in March 1991 but as the first step in the transformation of the entire Middle East. Amazing it may sound to world-weary Europeans and the majority of regional specialists but this school genuinely believes regime change in Iraq will break the Arab world's political logjam, and prove a "beacon" of hope throughout the Middle East.
That includes the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. In his State of the Union address only a month ago, the President devoted 18 words to the crisis that fuels anti-Americanism through the region. This time it got five paragraphs; the intended message was of an even-handed America, of a President who has decided that, just as his father proclaimed to Congress after his 1991 victory over Iraq, "the time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict". Examine his words more closely, however, and this Bush is offering little.
Everything is posited on an end to "Palestinian terrorism". Only "as progress is made towards peace" will the demand kick in that "settlement activity in the occupied territories must end". No dates, no time-table, nothing to disturb Ariel Sharon's sleep. In the showdown with Iraq, America is doing the begging, for Israel not to retaliate if President Saddam fires missiles in its direction.
Can America manage a country like Iraq? Does it have the patience, the tact the money, to see this nation- building through? Its record in Afghanistan thus far does not inspire much confidence.
The doubts are showing even in that bastion of loyalty, the State Department. John Kiesling, a political counsellor in Athens has become the first American diplomat to resign over Mr Bush's apparent determination to attack Iraq.
In a letter to Colin Powell, Mr Kiesling said Washington was "squandering the international legitimacy" built up since the era of Woodrow Wilson. He told The New York Times that "not one of my colleagues is comfortable with our policy" but that "no one had any illusions that the policy will be changed".
But these worries will not deflect Mr Bush. So much he made clear on Wednesday. To reprise the motto of a celebrated conviction politician, this President's not for turning.
Highlights of President Bush's speech to the American Enterprise Institute:
"If the [Security] Council responds to Iraq's defiance with more excuses and delays, if all its authority proves to be empty, the United Nations will be severely weakened as a source of stability and order."
"It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world, or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim, is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life."
"America has made and kept this kind of commitment before, in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments."