WASHINGTON—President Bush telephoned the leaders of France, Russia and China on Friday to make his case for replacing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He is scheduled to meet with the leaders of Britain on Saturday and Canada on Monday to discuss the same urgent topic. And he will top this latest whirlwind of diplomacy next Thursday with a speech at the United Nations presenting his case against Iraq to the world.
Yet after talking to Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin told British Prime Minister Tony Blair by phone Friday that he had "deep doubts that there are grounds for the use of force in connection with Iraq," according to Russia's RIA news agency.
That illustrates the challenge Bush has created for himself by beating the drum for war with Iraq without first making the case to Congress, the public and the world that it was necessary.
The way he and some of his top aides were operating drew rebukes from U.S. allies overseas, from senior Republicans in Congress, and even from former top foreign-policy advisers to the president's father, George H.W. Bush, who led his own war against Iraq.
In contrast to his father's careful cultivation of political support at home and abroad for his Persian Gulf War of 1991, this President Bush's approach so far has been marked by a series of uncharacteristic political missteps, analysts say.
"Whatever happened to the highly disciplined Bush White House," asks Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "This is a very maladroit, inept performance, and that's unusual for this White House. The president has made a number of clumsy moves and has had to backtrack."
One major political blunder came last month when the administration announced that it was not required to obtain congressional approval before starting a war with Iraq. On strictly legal grounds, the White House may well be correct; it cited the 1991 congressional resolution authorizing the Gulf War as its authority to start a new one.
But as political leadership, the announcement was disastrous. Congress didn't like the White House's dismissive attitude. Many of Bush's staunchest supporters there, including Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sharply objected.
On Wednesday, Bush reversed course. He told leaders of Congress that he now wants both houses to vote, before they adjourn in October, on a resolution authorizing him to take action in Iraq.
Similarly, while Bush had all but ignored U.S. allies and the United Nations regarding Iraq—triggering protests from leaders around the world—this week he finally began reaching out to both.
"It is in fact hard to find a clear logic to having such a loose process," observed Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University.
Within his own administration, rival positions on Iraq emerged prominently as top decision-makers wrestled over what to do about Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney's bellicose call to arms last week contrasted sharply with the more-diplomatic push from Secretary of State Colin Powell for a return of U.N. weapons inspectors first.
And for all the recent clamor over impending war, the administration, by its own admission, has yet to explain the urgency behind its push for "regime change" in Iraq. No evidence has been presented that Iraq's threat has grown more dangerous than it was a year ago, or five years ago, or ten. The president himself has yet to deliver a major speech on the topic.
A Gallup Poll released Friday found that 58 percent of Americans say the Bush administration has not done enough to explain why U.S. military action to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power is necessary.
In the absence of assertive argument from those in power, the most compelling cases both for and against a new war have come from the Republican Party's old guard, now on the sidelines.
On Friday George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, asserted in an essay in the Washington Post that "a strong foundation exists for immediate military action against (Saddam) Hussein and for a multilateral effort to rebuild Iraq after he is gone." Shultz arguably laid out the most cogent legal, strategic and moral case for war yet penned in this emerging debate.
In a real sense, Shultz was rebutting equally strong briefs against a pre-emptive U.S. war with Iraq laid out in recent weeks by Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, both top foreign-policy officials under the first President Bush. Also weighing in prominently was Henry Kissinger, who advised Presidents Nixon and Ford on foreign affairs, and who now says that a U.S. war with Iraq is justifiable, but maybe should not be pursued quite the way Bush is going at it.
This is not the traditional way that America goes to war, analysts say.
"It's hard to think of a period when we've had a comparable degree of foreign policy by op-ed," said Princeton scholar Greenstein.
Leon Panetta, former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, said the Bush administration's failure to lay out a compelling public case for action sparked "a myriad of opinion makers deciding `if they aren't going to do it, we're going to.'"
The debate has brought to light "lots of different strains of Republican thinking," observed Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington." I think these are genuine divisions of policy among those who are trying to justify a past policy, and those who are looking to go against it," Lichtman said.
One effect of what he termed the "ugly public debate," he said, "is that public support for strong action in Iraq has eroded."
Bush's phone calls Friday—which lasted a total of about 30 minutes—were to three countries that, like the United States, are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
On Saturday, Bush is to be visited by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the fifth permanent member of the Security Council and the only major country, other than Israel, that has voiced support for a new war with Iraq.
That suggests that Bush's belated outreach may not be enough to fix the political damage he's inflicted upon himself, analysts say.
"Whether we win or lose, Bush the unilateralist, Bush the cowboy, is the image that is permanently imprinted on the minds" of allies, said Sabato of Virginia. Without a clear public case for starting a war, he noted, many people think that Bush is simply acting to avenge his father's failure to rid the world of Saddam.
"It's dangerous for America's interests to be intertwined too much with the appearance of a grudge match," Sabato said.
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ