- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

The United States has softened its long-held demand for Iraqi weapons inspections in order to restore the U.S.-led coalition against Baghdad, Vice President Richard B. Cheney said in an interview.
In a conversation over lunch with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, Mr. Cheney took pains to emphasize that the United States eventually wants to resume inspections for weapons of mass destruction, which were halted following the U.S. bombing of Iraq on the eve of the House vote to impeach President Clinton.
But the vice president, who served as defense secretary during the Gulf war, made it clear that revitalizing the moribund sanctions regime against Iraq is a more pressing priority and the weapons inspections are not as important as the United States once said they were.
"I think we'd like to see the inspectors back in there," the vice president said during an hourlong interview in his ceremonial office in the Old Executive Office Building, where Vice President Al Gore conceded the 2000 election to George W. Bush in mid-December. "I don't think we want to hinge our policy just to the question of whether or not the inspectors go back in there," he said.
Asked whether the inspections program is now considered less crucial than in the past, Mr. Cheney said: "It may not be as crucial if you've got other measures in place and you've got a [sanctions] regime that people are willing to support. So we'll have to see."
Senior officials in Mr. Cheney's office called The Times late Friday to clarify his remarks, to say that the vice president does not believe weapons inspections have become unimportant.
"We expect the Iraqis to live up to all U.N. resolutions, including getting inspectors back in," said Mr. Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
However, Mr. Libby acknowledged that the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq is not imminent.
Mr. Cheney's remarks followed just days after Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a visit to Israel and the Arab countries, said sanctions against Iraq should be eased on civilian commodities, even civilian commodities that could be converted to military use, and tightened on military-related items. Several members of Congress said afterward that the changed policy amounts to the United States backing down in the face of Iraqi intransigence.
This contradicts Mr. Powell's earlier assertion, just before he departed for the Middle East, that sanctions would not be lifted until the inspectors are allowed in again. Members of Congress questioned the secretary's willingness to ease sanctions so soon after his confirmation hearing, in which he promised to reinvigorate the sanctions regime.
"Let the inspectors in, and we can get beyond this," Mr. Powell said before leaving for the Middle East. "Until [Saddam] does that, I think we have to be firm. We have to be vigilant and I will be carrying this message to my friends in the region."
Mr. Cheney, a key foreign policy adviser in the Bush administration, expressed frustration on several occasions during the interview with the policies of the Clinton White House, including:
The Middle East "… I think you've got to look at the situation we inherited in the Middle East and, frankly, it's a mess… ."
"One of the things that's happened is that, to a greater extent than ever before, the peace process, the situation between Israel and Palestine, now oftentimes comes up in your conversations with the Gulf states. It used to be when you traveled to the Gulf they were interested in U.S. relations, they were interested in the military situation in the Gulf, they were interested in economic and military cooperation with the United States. They almost never talked about Israel… . That's the challenge for diplomacy, and that's one of the reasons you need to be able to go back and sort of refocus the whole program."
China "I think we want good relations with China, but they've got to be based upon a realistic assessment of what our mutual interests are. You can't sort of ratchet it up and ratchet it down on an emotional basis. We do need to be consistent over time… ."
"I always felt, for example, that Bill Clinton's nine-day sojourn in China a couple years ago was a mistake. It's one thing to go and visit China… . It's a mistake to let them dictate to the president of the United States how many days he has to stay or that he can't stop and see Japan on the way coming and going."
Missile defense "I think that the program that the Clinton administration was pursuing is probably inadequate, was unduly constrained by the provisions of the ABM Treaty."
The de-emphasis of inspections signals the Bush administration's willingness to reorder priorities if that's what it takes to resurrect the multinational coalition that stood firmly in opposition to Iraq at the conclusion of the Gulf War 10 years ago. The coalition's resolve crumbled during the Clinton era as an international consensus emerged that economic sanctions have hurt Iraqi civilians while allowing President Saddam Hussein to remain in power and live in luxury.
The Bush administration appears close to settling on a revised set of priorities for reining in Saddam, whose influence in the Arab world has been growing in recent years. But Mr. Cheney was cagey about disclosing specifics of the new strategy.
"There are questions, such as well, I'm trying to think here of what's public and what isn't," the vice president said. "That's the challenge for diplomacy and that's one of the reasons you need to be able to go back and sort of refocus the whole program."
He said that Arab nations have shown growing impatience with the sanctions. Mr. Powell visited those nations last week and returned with a report that the Arab nations that were allied with the West in the Gulf War want to ease the sanctions.
"That's all part of the process of trying to reassemble the coalition around a policy that we've got a consensus on and that people are willing to live with and support," Mr. Cheney said. "The regime that had been put in place some years ago has clearly been allowed to atrophy, and it's broken down."
Arab sympathy for Iraqi civilians suffering under sanctions has been exacerbated by a growing sense that the Clinton administration botched the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"That, in effect, blew up, I think, over the course of the last year," Mr. Cheney said. "The Camp David talks … went haywire, putting Jerusalem front and center as sort of the be-all and end-all of negotiations before it really was ripe for solution."
The ensuing months of violence between Israelis and Palestinians only served to exacerbate Arab impatience with U.S. sanctions against Iraq.
"The breakdown, if you will, in the peace process has slopped over now and clearly has had an impact again on the publics in those [Arab] states and created added political problems, if you will, for our friends in the region," Mr. Cheney said. "That's the situation we've inherited. Now what we've got to do is try to construct a policy out there that can be sustained over a long period of time."
He said: "You've got to be able to regroup and refocus so that we do in fact once again have the support of the front line states out there, as well as the other major members of the coalition, to figure out how you move forward."
Such a regrouping evidently does not include making weapons inspections an immediate priority.
An Iraqi delegation at the United Nations vowed last week, after Secretary Powell's hints that sanctions would be modified, that inspectors would not be allowed back under any conditions. Several U.N. officials think the Iraqis may be less belligerent than their public demeanor suggests.
Meanwhile, conservatives on Capitol Hill remain staunchly opposed to any signal suggesting the softening of the long-held U.S. position that inspectors must be allowed to return to Iraq immediately.
The sanctions regime, which once blocked nearly all non-medical aid to Iraq, now fails to stem a torrent of goods and services that flows across Iraq's borders. Even military equipment has poured in.
"The Chinese have been in there with fiber-optic cables for the air defense network," Mr. Cheney said.
Last month, President Bush publicly showed his displeasure with the Chinese and vowed to send them a message. On Friday, Mr. Cheney indicated that the president's public scolding was the penalty for China's violation.
"We've already done it, in effect, by pointing out that they appear to have been operating there in violation of the sanctions by installing that capability for the Iraqis," he said. "There have been some reports since then that they've taken that on board and are considering our position."
On another topic, the vice president said a missile defense shield will be aggressively pursued. "We'd like to make it clear that the ABM Treaty should not stand in the way of doing an effective job of research and ultimate deployment of limited defenses, and that we're prepared to move as aggressively as we can to develop a ballistic missile defense," Mr. Cheney said.
"We also are concerned that the system do more than just cover the continental United States, that we be able to offer our allies and friends around the world some protection as well."
Asked whether that includes Taiwan, Mr. Cheney said: "I'll leave it right where I've left it."

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