WASHINGTON — As the presidential race enters its final weeks, President Bush's role as chief architect of an ill-fated policy toward Iraq is emerging as a potential weak spot in one of his strongest selling points to voters, his reputation as a savvy manager of foreign affairs.
From stump speeches to CNN's "Larry King Live," the Clinton-Gore campaign has turned up the political heat after sensing an opportunity to transform a Bush advantage into a vulnerability and undercut the benefit of the military victory in the Persian Gulf War.
Democratic nominee Bill Clinton has demanded appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether the Administration has covered up its prewar dealings with Iraq. Clinton's running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, has charged that Bush's conciliatory stance toward Iraq led directly to the war itself.
Pressed on the issue, Bush has defended his actions as a reasonable attempt to bring Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein into the "family of nations" and denied that U.S. aid helped Iraq's military.
However, the President's defense is encountering increasing difficulty as hundreds of pages of policy documents from his Administration surface to provide new ammunition for criticism. Those records relate in mounting detail the series of steps in which Bush and his senior advisers offered economic and diplomatic incentives to Iraq, although warnings were being received that Hussein was abusing the aid and using U.S. technology to produce weapons.
One of the most potentially damaging documents, a copy of which was obtained recently by The Times, is a secret, personal communique sent from Bush to Hussein at the critical juncture in the U.S.-Iraq relationship.
On July 28, 1990, with 35,000 Iraqi troops poised on the border with Kuwait, the President ordered a message conveyed directly to Hussein that stands as a concise summary of Bush's stance toward Iraq--a measure of cautious warning and a measure of friendly suasion.
"Let me reassure you . . . that my Administration continues to desire better relations with Iraq," Bush wrote Hussein in the still-classified cable. "We will also continue to support our other friends in the region with whom we have longstanding ties."
Five days later, on Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi troops overran Kuwait. The appeal--and the Bush Administration diplomacy--had failed.
A senior Administration official said in an interview that critics of the Iraq policy have consistently failed to put forward an alternative for dealing with the explosive unpredictability of Hussein and the complexities of Mideast politics at the time.
"Based upon what we knew, it made sense to maintain a limited relationship with Iraq in hopes of making Hussein a better actor," said the official, who spoke on the condition that his name be withheld. "It was a sensible, rational policy that was, by and large, professionally implemented. And there was a noticeable lack of viable alternatives."
The official argued that the intelligence warnings about Iraq's ambitious weapons program were "few and thin," and therefore did not warrant jettisoning the delicate relationship with Baghdad.
"The policy was somewhat of a risk," acknowledged the official. "I don't know of any risk-free foreign policy."
While Bush and others attempt to defuse the issue, the rhetoric from Clinton and Gore and the stream of revelations from records obtained by the press and by Congress have now elevated it to greater attention.
The effect is becoming apparent. Bush's leadership in the war has been gradually tarnished, and it is no longer possible for his campaign to invoke the Gulf affair as incontrovertible proof of his superior foreign affairs prowess.
The damaging paper trail began in the Ronald Reagan Administration and shows that when Bush took office in January, 1989, the tilt toward Iraq was already in place, set during the Iran-Iraq War by his predecessor.
But by the time Bush moved into the White House, the war was over and some were counseling a reassessment of the stance. Instead, Bush made it clear that he meant to expand relations with Iraq and quickly took steps to convey that intention to Hussein.
On March 24, 1989, at Bush's behest, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III met with Nizar Hamdoon, an accomplished Iraqi diplomat described in papers prepared for Baker before the meeting as "a unique channel" to Hussein.
According to declassified records, Baker was told at the time that Iraq was sheltering international terrorists and was "working hard at chemical and biological weapons and new missiles." While he did raise U.S. concerns over terrorism and Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Kurds, Baker also stressed to Hamdoon that the Administration sought to broaden ties with Baghdad.
It was a signal that never wavered despite repeated warnings from intelligence agencies and other quarters in the following months that Iraqi agents were scouring the world--the United States included--for weapons technology.