Diplomatic Diary: Public Relations War Games

Inside the West Wing, the Roosevelt Room occupies a special place in Bush family history. There, in December 1990, almost 12 years to the day, Barbara Bush met with the families of recently freed American hostages from Iraq who told of atrocities they suffered and of their happiness at being reunited with their loved ones. Later, they joined President Bush and the First Lady to watch them light the White House Christmas tree.

So when this current Bush White House made the unusual move of calling reporters to the Roosevelt Room Friday to discuss Iraq, it was hard to get past the symbolism.

This time around, though, it was the foreign-policy advisers who were determined to tell their own Iraqi horror stories of sorts. You might consider it a pre-emptive strike against Iraqi propaganda. Or you might consider it a critical insight into the Bush administration's approach to the United Nations weapons inspections that are continuing in Iraq.

Either way, the senior administration officials were pulling no punches: they wanted to talk about what they called Iraq's "head fakes and deceptions." And this all took place before the Iraqis had even released their 12,000-page declaration. In presidential campaign politics, such a session would be called a "prebuttal"--rebutting the opposition before it could make its case. In foreign policy, you could call it diplomatic ammunition for going to war.

In public, the White House now insists that it is poring over the Iraqi declaration and wants to finish its analysis before reaching any conclusion. Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said Monday that the analysis was going to be "very thoughtful, thorough and complete." "We want to be very deliberative as we move through and look at this document to determine, with the international community, what this indicates about Saddam Hussein and his disarmament," he said.

But in private, the deliberations are heading in one direction only: that inspections will fail and war is almost inevitable.

Said one official: "The declaration is intended to be the first step in the verification process. In this case, it becomes the first true test of whether Iraq is willing to cooperate in being disarmed of its weapons of mass destruction."

In other words, the weapons inspectors are free to drive around Iraq, but the White House is making long-distance inspections on its own. So where does that leave the U.N. inspectors on the ground? "Inspections only work if we have cooperation," said another official. "You have 100 inspectors in a country the size of California. How can you expect them to be able to identify at a precise moment that these weapons may be at a particular set of coordinates?"

Of course, you can't expect them to do any such thing, and there is broad support inside the administration for that position--including at the State Department, which is often painted as being pro-weapons inspectors. The problem is that there is little support for that view among the international community that makes up the U.N. Security Council.

The best way to view the whole weapons-inspections process is as an exercise in public relations. For the United States, inspections represent the best chance for winning global support in confronting Iraq. For allies such as Tony Blair, the British prime minister, they represent the best chance of deflecting domestic opposition. Even U.S. opponents in the region--the Syrians, for example--can be expected to step aside if Iraq is in flagrant violation of the U.N. process. (By the same token, Iraq is proving just as skillful in playing PR war games, suggesting that the United States is too trigger-happy to lead the U.N. into war.)

Yet the administration was only too ready to admit that it is unlikely to publicize anything so flagrant. Partly, that is because such publicity might compromise intelligence sources and methods. But, as officials said in the Roosevelt Room last week, it is also because such evidence is hard to come by.

Remember the U.N. drama of the Cuban missile crisis?

"In '62 you could have Adlai Stevenson producing pictures of missile sites being constructed in Cuba," said one senior administration official in the Roosevelt Room, with more than a hint of disappointment. "In the last 40 years, countries like Iraq have become practiced in denying us the ability to collect these types of information and have invested great resources in that type of objective."

So if you're waiting for a smoking gun at the U.N., don't hold your breath. This is not your father's missile crisis.

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