With speculation rising worldwide about the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the Persian Gulf crisis, Bush Administration officials went on a verbal offensive Monday, seeking to maintain public support for possible military action should Iraq refuse to withdraw from Kuwait.
From President Bush on down, officials expressed relief about the release of hostages held in Iraq and Kuwait. But they also stressed that an end to the hostage saga would not end the broader confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“I don’t believe Saddam Hussein deserves any credit for stopping a practice that obviously is abhorrent to the civilized world,” Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said in a speech to the Defense Preparedness Assn., a group of defense industry officials and former military officers.
The only way to guarantee peace and stability in the gulf is for Hussein to “go back to Baghdad with his tail between his legs,” Cheney said.
At the White House, Bush used the signing of a human rights day proclamation to denounce the “catalogue of human misery” in Kuwait that released hostages are beginning to describe.
“As long as such assaults occur, as long as inhumane regimes deny basic human rights, our work is not done,” he said.
Over the last several days, as the hostage release has changed the public mood from anticipation of war to hopes for peace, international speculation has blossomed about the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the crisis. Administration officials have grown concerned that a climate of peace would undermine Bush’s ability to threaten war to force Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait.
In response, the Administration has tried to emphasize Hussein’s continued military presence in the gulf and to question his motives in releasing the hostages.
Vice President Dan Quayle gave the most explicit statement of the Administration’s concern. Iraq’s release of hostages, he said, is part of a deliberate attempt by Hussein to wage a “political war” aimed at influencing Congress and U.S. public opinion.
“Saddam’s purpose in all this is perfectly clear. He hopes to encourage Congress to deprive the Bush Administration of its option to use force,” Quayle said in a speech to a Republican governors conference in North Carolina.
Despite the hostage release, “we have got to keep the pressure on,” Quayle added. “We have got to remember that the problem is Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait, and that this problem will not be resolved until Iraq is out of Kuwait.”
Cheney offered a similar position.
“In these past few days as (Hussein) has released hostages, he has simultaneously continued to build up his deployments in Kuwait, to enhance his fortifications and to add additional forces to the regions,” Cheney warned. So far, he said, Iraq had shown “absolutely no indication whatsoever of any intention” to withdraw from Kuwait.
And in a speech in Chicago, CIA Director William H. Webster stressed the need to maintain a credible military threat to persuade Hussein to withdraw.
“The intelligence community view,” Webster said, “is that Saddam’s willingness to sit tight and try to outlast the sanctions or, alternatively, to avoid war by withdrawing from Kuwait will be determined by his assessment of all the political, economic and military pressures arrayed against him.”
Quayle, who for several weeks has been the Administration’s most aggressive spokesman in advocating a tough line against Iraq, also took several sharp jabs at Bush’s Democratic critics in Congress, criticizing congressional hearings on the gulf in recent weeks.
“Some congressional Democrats,” he charged, “seem to have placed partisanship above statesmanship.”
Some other Democrats, however, announced Monday the formation of a new group to press the Administration to take an even harder line against Iraq.
Even if Iraq withdraws from Kuwait, “the threat posed by his weapons of mass destruction requires that they be verifiably dismantled--or, if necessary, destroyed,” the group, the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf, announced in a statement.
The organization, primarily Democrats, is headed by Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) and made up largely of longtime political supporters of Israel.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) announced that he will head a delegation of eight Democratic senators who will visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel later this week.
“It is important for members of Congress to have firsthand knowledge of the serious issues in the Persian Gulf,” Mitchell said in a statement announcing the seven-day trip.
U.S. and Iraqi diplomats continued to skirmish over the dates of proposed visits of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz to Washington and Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad.
State Department officials said that on Monday morning, Joseph C. Wilson IV, the senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, officially gave the Iraqi government the latest U.S. position on scheduling talks. The Administration, which initially said Baker would go to Baghdad any time between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, now insists that the Baker visit be scheduled before Jan 3.
U.S. officials are concerned about Iraq’s using a late date for the negotiations as a way of stretching out a Jan. 15, 1991, deadline for withdrawal from Kuwait that was set by the U.N. Security Council.