As if speaking from the same script, the Senate minority leader and two House Democratic chairmen declared Sunday that the American people want President Bush to work harder for a peaceful solution to the Persian Gulf crisis before waging war against Iraq.
Bush’s first priority, the leaders said, should be to nail down proposed talks in the next two weeks between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“The American people are not yet committed to war, and they want to make certain that President Bush has done everything, pursued every avenue for peace, before the firing starts,” Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Echoing his words on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said: “People want to make sure that we’ve tried every other alternative before going to war. . . . Some kind of a meeting (with Hussein) is really a precondition.”
Appearing with Aspin, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, added: “So long as there is a reasonable opportunity that the present strategy of the threat of the use of force, the economic sanctions and the diplomatic activity” will get Iraq out of Kuwait, “then I think you ought to stick with it and not go to war.”
The statements reflected growing concern over reports that Bush is ready to move swiftly to launch a massive military attack if Iraq fails to withdraw from Kuwait by the Jan. 15 deadline imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
“I think you’ll see real intensification of diplomatic effort in the next few days,” Hamilton said. “People are very, very nervous about the outbreak of war.”
In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry announced that the foreign ministers of the 12-nation European Community will meet Friday in Luxembourg to examine the situation in the Persian Gulf.
Dole called on Congress, which begins a new session Thursday, to strengthen Bush’s diplomatic hand by supporting a U.N. resolution that endorses the use of force against Iraq. Aspin agreed that the issue at least should be voted on, but Hamilton cautioned that divisive debate would send a damaging signal to Hussein.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Saturday that Democrats may push a resolution demanding that Bush wait at least 18 months for sanctions to work before taking military action. Gephardt also said that Democratic leaders are prepared to move to cut off funding of Operation Desert Shield if Bush launches an attack without Congress’ approval.
Dole scoffed at Gephardt’s remarks.
Waiting a year or so on sanctions would unravel the international coalition against Iraq, Dole contended.
“I guess I’d find myself somewhere in the middle” between advocates of fighting now and waiting a year, he added.
As for a possible funding cutoff, Dole said it would be “a big, big political mistake” for Gephardt even to suggest it because neither the House nor the Senate would support such a drastic ploy.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, Vice President Dan Quayle met with King Fahd, who agreed to a request for more financial aid in the Persian Gulf crisis, U.S. officials said. No figures for future Saudi aid were discussed, they said.
Dole, Aspin and Hamilton all made clear that many voters back home have been urging a talk-before-shoot policy on the Middle East. The impact on Aspin has been particularly dramatic.
Originally, he was hawkish on the need for quick military action if Iraq missed the Jan. 15 deadline. But on Sunday, he stressed that “a diplomatic solution is entirely possible.”
Dole’s deepening concern about war, it was learned, punctuated a recent conversation with Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.
Sources said that, when Scowcroft discussed with Dole the possibility of trying to arrange a Baker-Hussein meeting in Baghdad between Jan. 5 and Jan. 8, Dole responded tartly: “You better damn sure start doing that before you start shooting.”
A Dole aide had no comment on the report.
When Bush originally proposed the Baker-Hussein talks, he suggested a meeting between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15. But when Hussein offered Jan. 12, Bush said that was too close to the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait.
Dole said that a top Iraqi official in Baghdad told him in a phone conversation Saturday night that Hussein might be willing to meet with Baker before Jan. 12.