Selling The World On War

The U.N. General Assembly is not a place where a Texas straight shooter, a man who cherishes his freedom of action, especially wants to be making his case. Often ridiculed in Washington, the so-called Parliament of Man sits in a cavernous hall where small nations can pretend they are equal to the powerful--where Zambia has the same vote as America--and the acoustics are so deadening that even former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke calls the room "anti-human."

But by last week George W. Bush had grown tired of being characterized in the media as "a go-it-alone cowboy" pursuing a personal agenda against Iraq, says an aide. Neither the world nor the American public seemed to be buying his administration's efforts to demonize Saddam Hussein by hinting darkly at damning intelligence on his weapons programs. So at a meeting at his Crawford, Texas, ranch in mid-August with national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, the president, aides say, had a eureka moment. He seized--on an idea proposed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the oft-slighted moderate of his foreign-policy team: let's throw down the gauntlet to the United Nations. Cast Saddam as the unilateralist who is defying the international community--by spurning 11 years of U.N. resolutions calling on him to disarm--and the United States as the multilateralist that is defending the United Nations' honor. Even Vice President Dick Cheney, a hawk who has dismissed U.N. arms inspections as all but useless, remarked, " 'That would be a strong argument: it's not really the administration's problem, it's the U.N.'s problem'," says a top Bush adviser. As paraphrased by a senior administration official, Bush exclaimed to Rice: "Wait a minute. It's not just me! Does the U.N. really want to be irrelevant? You've got to be kidding me."

So it was that Bush proceeded to deliver, on the banks of New York's East River, one of the most masterful coups of his presidency. After weeks of anti-American invective from many of the governments in that room--most angered by what appeared to be a U.S. rush into war--Bush instantly transformed the global debate about Iraq. In a 25-minute speech, rapping out his lines like a prosecutor, Bush recited a slew of U.S.-supported U.N. resolutions that Saddam has spurned in a "decade of defiance" since the gulf war.

"Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence?" he demanded. Bush declared that Iraq is "exactly the kind of aggressive threat the United Nations was born to confront," and he delivered an ultimatum both to Saddam and to the United Nations itself: act now or America will. "The Security Council resolutions will be enforced... or action will be unavoidable, and a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power." Bush later pledged that his timetable was "days or weeks, not months or years"--and he launched plans to move a 600-person command center to the compliant Persian Gulf state of Qatar by November.

Despite its hard edge, Bush's speech at the U.N. annual summit blunted the objections of the Europeans and Russians to an Iraq war and cowed both Democratic critics and Republican moderates on Capitol Hill. It was also the opening move in a broad new strategy to win worldwide support. Lacking substantial new intelligence on Saddam's programs of weapons of mass destruction, the administration will counter with a global sales blitz coordinated largely out of the White House's soon-to-be launched Office of Global Communications, NEWSWEEK has learned. To the Arab world's media, the United States will send out news bites about "crime against Muslims." Tabloids will get a dossier on Saddam's personal excesses--like allegedly building 20 gold-plated statuettes to depict his life, and a man-made island in the shape of his footprint or thumb--to show that while the Iraqi people suffer, he lives lavishly. (Although even here, the administration continues to fight internally: the State Department is dismissing some of this material as unsourced Internet rumor.) Europe's greens will hear how he dumped a half-billion gallons of oil in the Persian Gulf in 1991--"more than 25 times as much oil as was dumped by the Exxon Valdez," said one White House official. "That sells in Europe." He adds: "This is guerrilla communications. Warfare isn't the only thing that's changed." Another administration official describes the rollout in the next few weeks as "several Cuban-missile-crisis moments," like newly declassified photos of Kurds gassed by Saddam. "We're working on trying to find good pictures," one aide says.

Yet even now Bush's patience with the world body is limited. The endless vagaries of U.N. protocol--part of the consensus system so despised by Bush hawks--don't help. Last week, as he waited to give the speech everyone wanted to hear, the planet's most powerful leader had to sit sourly--in the wings while Brazil's foreign minister delivered some instantly forgotten remarks. Greeted with applause as he stepped to the podium, Bush acted surprised, smirking in his trademark way. The president joked later that it was "like speaking to a wax museum" because, says an aide, the diplomats didn't react to his words: he couldn't feed off the crowd's energy.

And, not surprisingly, almost up until the last minute of Bush's speech, there was an internal struggle over just how multilateralist this in-your-face administration would get. A key line in the speech--Bush's pledge to "work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions" to authorize action--marked a major victory for Powell and Bush's closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. That promise of a new U.N. vote could make or break the new strategy, depending on whether the Bushies get balky powers like Russia and France onboard in negotiations this week. But the line was added only the night before the speech and was under discussion "right up to the end," a senior State Department official told NEWSWEEK. Because of what was said to be a technical glitch, it didn't even make it into the teleprompter. Not seeing the line on the screen but having rehearsed the speech, Bush added it back in himself. "He expected it to be in there, he wanted it to be in there," says one White House official. (According to another source, Bush also added an "s," making it "resolutions." That may have been a concession to the French, who have called for a two-resolution process: one to demand that Saddam allow inspectors quickly back into the country, and a second authorizing force if he doesn't.)

Blair is believed to have played a key role on the U.N. resolution issue after flying to Camp David the weekend before the speech. While the administration "was already headed in that direction" over the summer, says a Downing Street source, the British P.M. pressed for new action by the U.N. Security Council (the real power at the United Nations; the General Assembly is mainly a forum for persuasion). Blair, who was in frequent contact with Bush throughout August, made it clear that his acquiescence on Iraq was a "yes, but." Among his conditions: that Bush shift his focus from "regime change" to elimination of weapons of mass destruction. (British sources say they have no problem with taking out Saddam; they just don't want to say it.)

At stake was obtaining the unanimous support of the five permanent members of the Security Council--America, Russia, China, Britain and France--each of which has veto power. Pitted against Blair and Powell were the usual unilateralists: Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their aides, who maintained it was enough to say that the United States would work with the Security Council. But Powell wanted maximum flexibility, and Blair "was pretty emphatic that [the line about a resolution] be included," a U.S. aide said.

So for now the moderate Powell is steering U.S. policy, and for the first time in a while the Bush team is speaking with one voice. In coming weeks, Powell will try to use the momentum from Bush's speech to win at least one tough U.N. Security Council resolution giving Saddam an ultimatum--one that will likely set a deadline of no more than 30 days for admitting U.N. inspectors. But the administration will accept no negotiation, only a "zero tolerance" inspection regime. One reason the administration is willing to sanction a new U.N. resolution, says a senior Bush official, is that it wants to rid any ultimatum of previ--ous U.N.-sanctioned weaknesses--like exempting Saddam's presidential palaces from inspection. "I am highly doubtful that he'll meet our demands," Bush himself said on Friday. "We expect quick resolution." In fact, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon senior staff has already reached consensus on a war plan to seize Baghdad and paralyze Saddam's forces. Still, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, Bush continued to stress to other world leaders last week "that he hoped we did not have to have a military option."

Iraq said again it won't permit new inspections. But the biggest fear is that Saddam will try to draw out the U.N. resolution game, eventually allowing inspectors back in while he plays for time. The trickiest question, says a Security Council source, will be "what will trigger the 'or else' ultimatum to Saddam: the first time he gives inspectors trouble, or later?"

Bush still reserves the right to act unilaterally. But the new approach puts more pressure on him to win consent from his Security Council partners for the use of force. The key obstacle here may be Russia, which has long treasured its quiet commercial deals with Saddam's regime. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Boris Malakhov, says, "We agree with President Bush" on the need to fight resolutely against terrorism. The cost of Moscow's compliance could be high: in recent days the Russian media have suggested that Washington and Moscow are contemplating a deal--known, in shorthand, as "Georgia for Iraq." In return for a Russian vote on Iraq, in other words, Washington might be asked to quietly condone President Vladimir Putin's threats to attack suspected Chechen terrorists across the border in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The Russian leader, who has formed a close personal bond with Bush, now seems to be echoing his friend's doctrine of "pre-emption," declaring the unilateral right to intervene in terror-supporting states.

The State Department has condemned Putin's threats, but a senior administration official seemed to shift course last week, saying in Moscow that Putin has "a legitimate security argument." The administration may need to cut all the corners it can, given the formidable selling job it still has. Bush's No. 1 problem--and perhaps the real reason he has abruptly shifted tactics--is that evidence of Saddam's terrorist connections and nuclear prospects is sketchy. Indeed, neighboring Syria and Iran may have more documentable terrorist links, intelligence sources say. And the evidence suggests that while Saddam certainly is still engaged in trying to rebuild his nuclear-weapons capability, he is a long way from building a bomb, perhaps many years. Even so, the administration has been cavalier about compiling a national intelligence estimate on the Iraq threat, with one senior official dismissing it as "a check-the-box thing."

In recent months, a major effort by the administration to comb through 10 years of evidence in Iraq has turned up little. After sifting through covert on-the-ground collection efforts, reanalyzing satellite imagery and voluminous archives of material collected through the 1990s by U.N. inspectors, and checking materials components and suppliers around the world, intelligence officials are still not sure what Saddam has been up to in the four years since he refused to readmit weapons inspectors. "As you would expect, we have found some things we didn't know before," said an authoritative source. "But nothing huge. No smoking gun." Example: administration officials recently made much of Saddam's alleged purchase of aluminum tubes, ostensibly for uranium enrichment. But according to experts inside and outside the government, if Saddam is only now trying to get the tubes, he may be years away from building a working apparatus to enrich uranium.

Whichever way the administration goes, the selling campaign does amount to a concession that unilateralism only takes you so far. Bush's new tack on Iraq, and his moving speech to the nation during last week's 9-11 commemoration, bumped up --his approval rating back to 70 percent after a slide to the low 60s, the new NEWSWEEK Poll shows. But Americans continued to support, by nearly a two-thirds margin, the idea that Washington should attack only with support from European allies and the United Nations. In fact, the president's U.N. speech may have boosted public support for an international force to remove Saddam (75 percent favor it now versus 69 percent in late August).

As part of its sales pitch, the administration is carefully releasing material bit by bit because "it is easy to defeat one document," says one official. "There are high expectations at an extremely high level for a high degree of coordination," he says. What that suggests is that the Bush hawks will no longer be permitted to freelance (the White House, for example, recently canceled a hawkish Rumsfeld op-ed on Iraq before it was published in The Washington Post). "One thing this White House is good at," says one aide hopefully, "is vividly telling a story." As long as they're all telling the same story.