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Bush beginning to question hard-line policies on Iraq

WASHINGTON—Faced with rising costs, sinking polls, unsympathetic allies, an increasingly skeptical Congress and potential splits in his political party, President Bush has begun to question the hard-line Iraq policies long championed by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Foreign-policy concerns and domestic politics are prompting the administration to rethink its approach to Iraq, said a number of administration foreign and domestic-policy officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because, as one of them put it, "the president hates seeing internal debates in the paper."

Abroad, these officials said, it's clear that the United States needs more foreign money and manpower in Iraq. It's also clear that America isn't likely to get much of either without sharing at least some authority with the United Nations and agreeing to hand over power to Iraqis more quickly.

At home, they said, budget chief Josh Bolten and other White House officials have been troubled by the rough reception the president's request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004 is getting in Congress and across the country.

The officials said Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, was concerned about new polls that suggest sinking support for the president's handling of Iraq. Rove also is worried about a potential schism between traditional Republican conservatives wary of spending huge sums in Iraq and neoconservatives who want to remake not only Iraq but also Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Even some of Bush's strong support from military families appears to be ebbing, one official said, as overseas tours are extended and casualties mount.

"The election is still ours to lose," one senior official said. "What's new is that some people now see ways we could do that, even against this field of Democrats."

Although he remains untested politically, this official said, the entry of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark into the race this week gives the Democrats a candidate who opposed Bush's policy in Iraq but has strong national security credentials.

The officials all said the president hadn't yet changed course on Iraq, and that no one advocated a U.S. withdrawal or even limits on the commitment to prevail. And, they hastened to add, Cheney remains steadfast in believing that the battle in Iraq is central to the war on terrorism and the key to reshaping the Middle East.

"Cheney," said one senior official, "is obsessed with the war on terrorism, and has been ever since 9-11."

But as Bush prepares to travel to United Nations headquarters in New York next week to seek help for Iraq, and as his aides try to persuade even some Republicans to pony up the money the administration wants, he has begun to retreat from some of his administration's controversial allegations about Iraq and to consider sharing power with the United Nations in postwar Baghdad, senior administration officials said.

"The course we were on—insisting that we must prevail in Iraq and that Congress and the allies must give us whatever we ask for—wasn't sustainable," one senior administration official said.

The official continued: "The allies have made it clear that they won't pay to dance to whatever tune that we call. The Congress is alarmed by what Iraq is costing and fed up with officials who go up to (Capitol) Hill to give orders instead of consulting and answering questions. When you think about it, the Congress and the French have about the same reaction to our Iraq policy: `You didn't ask us, so why should we pay?'''

If Bush is ready to adjust his Iraq policy, he may gain insight into what's necessary there next week when L. Paul Bremer, the civilian in charge of Iraq's reconstruction, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top military commander there, return to Washington for consultations.

As much as the president hates airing internal divisions publicly, he appeared Wednesday to backpedal from his administration's earlier suggestions that Iraq is the center of global terrorism, and to contradict some of what his vice president had said three days earlier about Iraq and al- Qaida.

Bush said that while "there's no question that Saddam Hussein had al-Qaida ties," he conceded that "we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th'' attacks. For months, some administration officials had encouraged speculation that Saddam had a hand in the attacks, and Cheney revived that controversy Sunday, when on NBC he called Iraq "the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9-11."

Asked if he found it surprising that a Washington Post poll in August found that 69 percent of Americans thought Saddam was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, Cheney replied: "No. I think it's not surprising that people make that connection." He went on to suggest other evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaida, including an alleged 2001 meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, that CIA and FBI officials now think never happened.

In fact, although there is evidence of occasional contacts between Iraqi officials and al-Qaida, many intelligence officials think the Islamic terrorist group remained reluctant to cooperate with the secular Iraqi regime.

Intelligence officials, meanwhile, said the administration soon may be forced to retreat further on another of its foremost arguments for war with Iraq: the claim that Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons and was still trying to develop nuclear ones.

The officials said David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector who's leading the hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, had been unable to find evidence to support the administration's prewar claims that Iraq had hidden more than 500 tons of chemical and biological agents. One official said Iraqi scientists Kay had interviewed had insisted that Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

As a result, the officials said, Kay's report is expected to focus on Iraq's manufacture and use of chemical and biological agents before the Gulf War and its ability to reconstitute its weapons programs later in so-called "dual-use" facilities, ones capable of making weapons as well as pesticides and other legitimate products.

On Thursday, former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix continued his attack on the administration's case for war, calling the American and British allegations of hidden Iraqi chemical and biological weapons "spin and hype.''

``In the Middle Ages when people were convinced there were witches, they certainly found them," he told BBC radio. "This is a bit risky."

The controversy over the administration's allegations, the rising cost of rebuilding Iraq and continuing casualties appear to be sapping public support for Bush's policy in Iraq.

A CBS News poll, released Wednesday, found that 47 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of Iraq and 46 percent approve. In April, 79 percent approved and 17 percent disapproved. Even more troubling for the administration, only 26 percent said they thought the United States should spend $87 billion to rebuild Iraq, as Bush seeks; 66 percent said it shouldn't.

The president's own ratings were more resilient, however, with his overall job approval falling only to 52 percent from 55 percent in August, a dip that's within the poll's sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Nevertheless, one senior official said: "The numbers aren't that worrisome, but this isn't the trend we want to see going into an election. Some changes are in order."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.