WASHINGTON -- President Bush came into office talking tough about confronting Saddam Hussein over chemical and biological weapons. But developments in the Persian Gulf suggest he'll face the same problems in outmaneuvering the Iraqi leader that his father and President Clinton did before him.
Saddam and the larger issue of tensions in the Middle East are shaping up as Bush's first tough national security test.
U.S. intelligence reports suggest that Iraq has been rebuilding plants capable of producing chemical or biological weapons.
''What we don't know is what's going on in those facilities,'' Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday. ''And that is a cause for concern to us, given Saddam Hussein's past track record of obfuscation and denial of his (weapons) programs.''
Bush's national security team is also troubled about a new assertiveness shown by Saddam and his followers -- including a proposal by his son, a member of the Iraqi Parliament, that maps be modified to show Kuwait as a part of Iraq.
Saddam has been seeking to raise his standing in the Arab world and attempting to tie his country's plight to that of the Palestinians. In a televised speech last week marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the Persian Gulf War, he appealed to fellow Arabs to unite against foreign influence in the Middle East.
''We understand, going in, that this is still a dangerous man,'' Bush said in a recent interview.
Further destabilizing the region: Tuesday's breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The talks in Taba, Egypt, ended abruptly when Israel recalled its delegation after two Israelis were killed, apparently by Palestinian gunmen, in the West Bank.
Clinton invested an enormous amount of time and energy in his final year trying to nudge the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward.
Bush said he would try to maintain that commitment. And Secretary of State Colin Powell talked by telephone on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But underscoring a lower level of involvement was the absence of any U.S. representatives at the talks.
''The United States will decide, in this new administration, on the exact structure and form of its involvement. And we'll tell you about that when it's time,'' State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.
Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Vice President Dick Cheney, as defense secretary, helped the United States make war on Saddam Hussein in 1991. And both have issued hawkish statements on dealing with him now.
Furthermore, Bush said in several interviews that he would use military force against Saddam if it could be demonstrated the Iraqi leader was indeed rebuilding his arsenal.
But Bush conceded that might be hard without weapons inspectors. ''Therein lies the problem,'' he told The Associated Press. ''There is (satellite) imagery. We may catch him moving a giant weapon. I don't know. We'll see.''
Iraq agreed at the end of the Gulf War to dismantle chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. But Saddam kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors after the U.S.-British ''Operation Desert Fox'' bombings in December 1998.
''Absolutely we ought to have inspectors back in there, but there doesn't seem to be much consensus for it right now,'' Bush said.
Bush inherits ''a whole new set of problems'' on Iraq, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
''Backlash from the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians makes it harder for him to deal with friendly Arab states. And so many powers want to get back into Iraq, invest in its energy, get a share of rebuilding its economy'' that unilateral military action by the United States would find little international support, Cordesman suggested.
Meanwhile, illegal oil shipments from Iraq are reportedly going by either sea or pipeline to Syria, Turkey and Jordan.
The reports that Iraq may be covertly building weapons of mass destruction is being taken seriously by Bush's national security team. But aides suggested that, unless provoked by Saddam militarily, the administration is unlikely to rush to take any overt steps.
''It's too soon to address that question,'' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
He said Bush ''will continue to make sure that we work to protect our interests in the Middle East, including, of course, Iraq.
Tom Raum covers national and international affairs for The Associated Press.
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