Bush's tough talk appealing at home, but presents problems negotiating abroad

Being blunt bad for diplomacy

Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2003

WASHINGTON -- In the nuanced world of diplomacy, President Bush speaks in blunt terms: dead or alive, good or evil, with us or against us. A more difficult task will be to match his stark rhetoric with the hard evidence against Iraq being demanded by doubting allies and skeptical Americans.

It's now up to Secretary of State Colin Powell to persuade the U.N. Security Council next week that the Bush administration does, in fact, have the goods on Saddam Hussein, as Bush suggested in his withering attack on the Iraqi leader in the State of the Union speech broadcast around the world.

''If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning,'' Bush said after cataloguing Saddam's alleged accumulation of weapons of mass destruction and atrocities against his own people. Bush cast the United States as ready to lead an army to strike down Saddam ''for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world.''

The president kept up the line of attack on Wednesday, telling a Grand Rapids, Mich., audience that mere containment of Saddam was no longer an option. ''You don't hope that therapy will somehow change his evil mind,'' he said.

Bush's tendency to draw moral distinctions has caused alarm among Europeans and other allies and could complicate Powell's efforts next week as he lays out his case.

In fact, Bush has a history of speaking in stark black and white terms -- only to pull back if things don't work out as planned.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he vowed to get Osama bin Laden, ''dead or alive.'' But the suspected mastermind of those attacks remains at large -- and is seldom mentioned at the White House these days. He wasn't in Tuesday night's speech. Nor was bin Laden's terror network, al-Qaida.

''It's apparently Osama bin Forgotten,'' said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Also missing: the ''axis of evil,'' Bush's 2002 State of the Union characterization of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The phrase hasn't been heard much since the disclosure last fall that North Korea was restarting its nuclear weapons program -- and the administration's pursuit of a diplomatic course with Pyongyang alongside a military one with Baghdad.

''Different threats require very different policies,'' Bush said.

Bush's strong rhetoric ''appeals to the American public, strengthens his position at home and helps persuade the American people of the necessity of going into Iraq. So domestically, it's certainly a plus,'' said Lee Hamilton, who was the Democratic chairman of the House International Relations Committee during the 1991 Gulf War.

''But on the international level, the strong division of right and wrong and the heavy sense of moralism undoubtedly makes the diplomats' chores more difficult. And it leads to an exacerbation of the feelings between the countries,'' said Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Several polls after Tuesday night's speech suggested that Bush made some headway in boosting support for military action in Iraq, especially among Republicans.

Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton's national security adviser, welcomed some of Bush's tough language. ''He did make the argument very strongly that Saddam has not complied, and I think he put it in terms that were more understandable to people and more focused.''

Even so, Berger said, ''there was no effort in that speech to make it clear that we would rather do this through a broad coalition.''

Bush's steely resolve won praise from other Republicans. ''It is obvious the president is showing incredible moral leadership,'' House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, said Wednesday.

But that could also spell trouble.

''When you put things in moral terms, that limits you ability to negotiate,'' said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former White House speechwriter. ''If it's evil, you can't go for half of evil. That's why we're in a world that deals in nuance.''

Bush recapped his administration's case but left it up to Powell to offer specifics in his Feb. 5 Security Council presentation. Powell was expected to share sensitive intelligence evidence, including satellite photographs allegedly showing an Iraqi efforts to remove evidence from sites and hide it from weapons inspectors.

So far, skeptical allies remained skeptical, unswayed by Bush's doomsday rhetoric.

''We have not seen any reason so far to undercut the inspection process. The inspections are useful, they are efficient and effective. And they certainly should continue,'' Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergey Lavrov, told reporters in New York.

What would it take to change his mind? ''We would like to see undeniable proof. OK?''

Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.---

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