- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

President Bush told the United Nations on Sept. 13 182 days ago that "we expect quick resolution to the issue" of Iraqi disarmament, setting a deadline of "days and weeks, not months and years."
Exactly six months later, he's still waiting, mired in an ever-growing U.N. debate. The U.N. Security Council met his first deadline by passing Resolution 1441 in 57 days, but the world body has dragged its feet over the following 125 days, with Mr. Bush accepting repeated extensions and modifications to a second resolution he says he doesn't even need.
His decision yesterday to withdraw today's deadline for a vote on an 18th U.N. resolution on Iraq and allow the debate to push into next week threatens to reduce the president's credibility on his assertion Jan. 15 that "time is running out."
"The continuing delay, at this point, offers no real benefits and instead is creating far more problems," said one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Among those "problems" is an unstable economy in which financial markets remain jittery about the effects of war, growing war protests and a fragile coalition that threatens to splinter if the matter drags on longer, the official said.
Mr. Bush's decision to withdraw deadlines and allow the debate to continue for weeks and months is sending a mixed message to the world, said Lee Hamilton, a former congressman and now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
"I think the United States has to be firm on the timeline. Obviously, it's a mistake when we say, 'We're demanding a vote on Friday,' and then you back away from that. … You shouldn't set a target like that and then back away from it," Mr. Hamilton said.
On the other hand, the 17-term congressman said, delays are sometimes unavoidable and can pay off.
"This is crunch time. … If we delay another few days and put out the benchmarks that the [British] have talked about, we have a chance of getting some more votes. Clearly, President Bush thinks that is the right thing to do," he said.
"It's like the Congress. You have to scramble for votes. That's exactly what we're doing here, only the stakes are a lot higher than they would be for a piece of legislation," Mr. Hamilton added.
That latter stance is espoused by Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, who said yesterday that the delays merely illustrate "the fluid situation with the diplomacy."
"The end is coming into sight. … I cannot predict for you every shape and turn of the road on the way to that end, but this end is coming into sight, and that's why you're seeing some levels of flexibility and discussion of options as it comes into sight," he said.
All options are on the table, including the abandonment of a U.N. vote, said Mr. Fleischer, who had said earlier this week that the president wanted a Security Council vote by today.
"I don't think it should surprise anybody that as it gets down to the very last stages of diplomacy, there are different ideas that can be discussed, there are different ends to reach, different routes to reach that end," Mr. Fleischer said. "But it will not be pursued all that much longer. It is coming to an end."
Still, there is growing frustration with a process that appears to be heading toward failure in the United Nations, and some on Capitol Hill including Democrats want to put an end to the debate.
"We need to do whatever we're going to do," said freshman Rep. Rodney Alexander, Louisiana Democrat. "Right now, it's just got people concerned, they're upset, they're not going anywhere, they're not spending any money. If we're going to do something, I think we ought to do it."
The delays, Mr. Alexander said, are "giving fuel to those that are violently opposed to any confrontation. It's giving them more leverage. … It's doing damage to our credibility if we wait."
The White House position on Iraq has evolved since the September 11 attacks.
Some senior officials pushed for military intervention to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a strategy rejected by the White House at the time.
However, after the defeat of Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban regime in December 2001, the administration began to set its sights on ousting Saddam and disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bush eventually decided to side with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and seek the support of the United Nations.
In the days after Resolution 1441 passed unanimously on Nov. 8, with a warning that there would be "serious consequences" if Saddam did not cooperate fully with U.N. weapons inspectors, senior administration officials said the United States did not need another resolution to use force against Iraq. The administration, nevertheless, sought one on Feb. 24, 108 days later.
Delays have stretched from days into weeks as various world leaders push for changes to the newest resolution, which is sponsored by the United States, Britain and Spain, that is now before the Security Council.
But Mr. Bush made his intentions clear in a Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations last year. He warned the world body of the consequences of continued equivocation, citing Iraq's flouting of 16 previous U.N. resolutions.
"The conduct of the Iraqi regime is a threat to the authority of the United Nations and a threat to peace," Mr. Bush said. "Iraq has answered a decade of U.N. demands with a decade of defiance.
"All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment: Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?"
Since then, the White House has been flexible on deadlines, often saying that there is no timetable but occasionally pushing back deadlines it has set.
While the White House rejects a proposal by six Security Council members for a 45-day reprieve for Iraq, U.S. officials have said they are prepared to once again extend by seven to 10 days the March 17 disarmament deadline stated in the second resolution.
Mr. Powell said Feb. 14 that there is a chance that diplomatic momentum could be lost if the matter draws out much longer.
"String it out long enough and the world will start looking in other directions. The Security Council will move on," Mr. Powell said.

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