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THE NATION | NEWS ANALYSIS

President Focuses on Terrorism

September 08, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's speech to the nation Sunday was notable for three difficult foreign policy issues he did not address: whether he still expects to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, what is he willing to offer other nations in exchange for any help there and whether the U.S. can prevent the collapse of the Middle East peace process.

Instead, Bush sought to portray the difficulties America faces in occupying Iraq as another phase in the war on terrorism that his administration has been waging since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans," Bush said in the nationally televised speech, his first since May 1, when he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. "We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today, so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities."

Before the March invasion of Iraq, Bush had justified the war as necessary to eliminate a threat posed by Saddam Hussein's alleged cache of weapons of mass destruction. With no such weapons found more than four months after the U.S. takeover, Bush skirted the issue, mentioning only that the former regime "possessed and used weapons of mass destruction," an apparent reference to weapon stocks held by Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s.

In addition, the Bush administration has argued that a democratic Iraq would have a positive and stabilizing influence across the Middle East. Shortly after declaring an end to major combat, Bush began to push his "road map" as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But over the weekend, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- regarded as a key figure in the process -- resigned. Bush did not use Sunday's speech to lay out how he intends to salvage prospects for peace, going only so far as to say that the Middle East is the crux of the war on terrorism.

"The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will be an exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other free nations," the president said. "Everywhere that freedom takes hold, terror will retreat."

There is little doubt that Congress will approve the $87 billion Bush requested Sunday to pay for the war in Iraq and accelerate the reconstruction and ongoing combat efforts in Afghanistan. Lawmakers from both major parties said the cost of U.S. failure in Iraq would be too high to contemplate.

"We want other countries to participate," said Stuart Roy, an aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). "But in the event they don't ... we can't afford to lose the war on terrorism."

In March, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz testified before Congress that Iraq would begin to finance its own reconstruction through oil sales "relatively soon." A sober postwar assessment of Iraq's decrepit infrastructure, further crippled by looting, sabotage and the lack of security, has quashed such hopes.

Bush cited three major U.S. policy objectives in Iraq. The first is to "destroy terrorists" and Hussein loyalists. The second is to expand the international role in Iraqi reconstruction and security, and the third is to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

U.S. military commanders have identified the "internationalization" of the Iraqi occupation force as key to defusing anti-American sentiment.

But several countries, including India, have said they would not contribute troops unless Iraq was being run under a U.N. mandate.

The president said he had directed Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to introduce a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would authorize the creation of a multinational force in Iraq led by the U.S.

However, Security Council members France and Germany have rejected the draft resolution the Bush administration put forward last week, saying it did not sufficiently address handing over authority to an Iraqi government.

Powell, in television appearances Sunday, indicated a willingness to negotiate with France and Germany, but called on them to study the U.S. proposal and make specific suggestions before rejecting it out of hand.

"We want to move to sovereignty as quickly as possible," Powell said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But to think that somehow you could, tomorrow, wake up and say, 'OK, fine, give sovereignty back to the Iraqi people,' before you have a constitution, before you've had elections, before you've had the institution of democracy put in place, is not a reasonable statement to make."

Even with a new U.N. resolution, Powell said, "I'm not sure the French and the Germans are prepared to send troops under any set of circumstances.... What we are really interested in in this resolution, though, is to get the international community to come together and participate in the political reconstruction of Iraq."

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