- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

NEW YORK Bush administration officials yesterday said the president decided long ago he would turn to the United Nations as the first step in dealing with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, despite talk as recently as Tuesday about pre-emptive U.S. military strikes.

President Bush in mid-August had virtually decided to seek redress through the United Nations by calling for enforcement of 16 resolutions Iraq has flouted since 1990, the officials said.

"The fact is, the president's obviously known for a long time he's coming to the U.N.," Communications Director Dan Bartlett said. "His idea was to challenge the United Nations. Is the U.N. relevant or not? That's something he's been talking about."

But the administration's stance at least as described in press reports over the last few months appeared to take a circuitous path, with dozens of articles flatly stating the president planned a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq. The claims prompted angry reactions by some congressmen, who said the president had not yet made a compelling case for military action.

Yet through the carefully choreographed debate about how to handle Saddam, the administration has arrived at its desired destination: Congress and the United Nations have a last chance to act before, as Mr. Bush said yesterday, "action will be unavoidable."

Choosing a course of action on Iraq has been a challenge since the beginning of Mr. Bush's term. Just a month after taking office, the president called the U.N. sanctions "Swiss cheese" and vowed "there will be a consequence" if Iraq is found to be developing weapons of mass destruction.

While the issue died down after September 11, Mr. Bush stoked it back to life this summer by calling for a regime change quickly, before Saddam acquires nuclear capabilities.

Throughout August, reports emerged that the administration had concluded no congressional approval or U.N. resolution would be necessary before undertaking a military strike. The president spoke in black-and-white terms, declaring regime change to be the only option.

The debate escalated as foreign leaders came out against a military response, many counseling Mr. Bush to work through the United Nations.

A range of senior administration officials, including National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, yesterday said Mr. Bush planned to seek U.N. support even before world leaders frowned on a U.S. military strike.

"He wasn't going to let others make his decision for him," Mr. Fleischer said. "When people complained that he hadn't made his case, well, he hadn't made his case yet.

"The right forum was the U.N. He wanted to deliver his message directly to the people who shape the world."

Miss Rice said the president's "own compass has told him for some time that he wanted international support for what he was for dealing with the Iraqi threat, that he would want to go to Congress for the full support of the American people's representatives."

"I can tell you that this speech has been in his head for a while, but it was really [developed during] the period of time when he was in Crawford [Texas]" in August, she said. "He was coming to terms with how he might use the U.N. speech to address it."

The speech composed by chief writer Michael Gersen, John Gibson of the National Security Council and longtime adviser Karen Hughes went through 24 revisions before Mr. Bush delivered it yesterday.

Last weekend, at Camp David, advisers "all gathered and said, 'OK, this is our objective. How best can we meet that objective?'" Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Bush said, "This is a direct challenge to the United Nations. And that's what he told his speechwriters when they began to draft the speech," according to Mr. Bartlett.

Before the speech, however, administration officials ramped up the hawkish talk.

"A person would be right to question any suggestion that we should just get inspectors back into Iraq, and then our worries will be over," Vice President Richard B. Cheney said Aug. 26. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddams] compliance with U.N. resolutions."

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