Bush garners political dividends from outcome of war in Iraq

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2003

WASHINGTON While British Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken a pounding on the Iraq war, President Bush has worked to harvest a political dividend from it, hoping to help brush aside deepening questions over Saddam Hussein's arms program.

The war's outcome changed the dynamics and the thinking of leaders in the Middle East, offering Bush an opportunity to seize the moment and step up involvement in the peace process.

Thus Bush became the toiling peacemaker in a week that found Blair on the defensive and under investigation by Parliament over the veracity of prewar claims about Saddam's arsenal.

During a seven-day trip to Europe and the Middle East, Bush cemented ties with Eastern European nations allied with the United States against Iraq, mended fences with Russia and China and put into play the most far-reaching Mideast peace initiative in years.

Exuberant on the way home, Bush even had Air Force One fly directly over Iraq's capital as he pointed out landmarks to aides.

''I'm the master of low expectations,'' he had told reporters traveling with him on the trip.

With Blair battling charges he exaggerated Saddam's weapons capabilities, Bush was winning praise for getting the Israelis and the Palestinians together on a plan to foster peace and establish a Palestinian state by 2005.

At home, Bush's high approval ratings have kept Democrats, with their eyes on next year's White House election, on a cautious path on the weapons issue.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a presidential hopeful and former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is one of the few to openly challenge Bush on his war motives.

Graham suggested last week that the Bush administration may have ''engaged in manipulation and the misleading of the American people'' in overstating Saddam's weapons capability.

As for the Middle East, many Arab nations joined in public opposition to the U.S.-British decision to go to war against Iraq. Now, many of those same countries are supportive of the U.S.-led reconstruction in Iraq and a strong U.S. role in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The war also is leading many Arab governments to take more aggressive stands against militant groups inside their borders.

The overthrow of Saddam, who never was held in high esteem by his Islamic neighbors, sent a message to hard-line governments such as Syria that Bush was willing to act on his pledges to go after regimes that condone terrorism and develop lethal weapons.

''Iraq presented the world with a unique set of circumstances,'' said National Security Council official Sean McCormack. ''Countries like Syria are still faced with basic choices about terrorism and spread of weapons of mass destruction.''

Bush's two days of personal diplomacy in the Mideast also may help to ease some of the rampant anti-Americanism in the Islamic world and reassure leaders in the region.

''Other good things can flow from a peaceful resolution of this very difficult problem,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain suggests that overthrowing Saddam removed a major threat to Israel and to regional peace, and thus paved the way to progress on a Mideast peace.

Questions over how solid was the case for war with Iraq have embroiled Blair in the biggest controversy of his six years in power. Blair staked his reputation on asserting that Iraq was developing lethal weapons and was poised to use them.

By contrast, Bush's approval ratings remain high in U.S. polls, which also show that a majority of the public does not seem overly concerned about the lack of progress in finding banned Iraqi weapons.

Bush has expressed less certainty in recent days about the existence of massive arsenals, focusing instead on the discovery by allied forces of two truck trailers that the CIA claims could have been used for manufacturing biological weapons.

''We're on the look. We'll reveal the truth,'' Bush told U.S. forces based in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar as he wound up his trip late last week.

Then, hedging his bets and changing his tack, Bush suggested it does not really matter whether banned weapons are found because ''one thing is certain. No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the Iraqi regime is no more.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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