Edging closer toward air strikes against Iraq, Defense Secretary William Cohen met with his counterparts from Europe’s four biggest nations Saturday to enlist their support.
A U.S. congressional delegation also visiting Munich suggested that the extent of America’s commitment to NATO would hinge on European backing of the U.S. position on Iraq.
Cohen declared there was no definite time line or deadline set for military action, but his aides announced that he had signed deployment orders sending 42 more military aircraft to the Persian Gulf region.
The action made clear that while administration officials still hold out the prospect of a diplomatic solution to the confrontation with Iraq, they continue to steadily prepare for war.
In New York, meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson ended an 18,000-mile trip across three continents. He said he found among leaders of the countries he visited a “silent majority” supportive of U.S. policy toward Iraq including, if necessary, military action to make Baghdad cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.
On Monday, Richardson will join British diplomats in lobbying for support within the 15-nation Security Council for a resolution that would declare Iraq in “material breach” of council resolutions ordering the elimination of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The Clinton administration contends that existing council resolutions authorize the use of force against Iraq, but Britain wants a new resolution that would apply specifically to the current situation.
In lobbying NATO allies, Cohen had help from several leading senators who accompanied him here to a European conference on strategic issues.
With German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and prominent members of Europe’s defense establishment in the audience, the senators warned that failure to support the United States in its confrontation with Iraq would undermine the Atlantic alliance.
“Make no mistake,” declared Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., the second-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, “there is a direct relationship between decisions taken on Iraq in the next weeks and months and the future U.S. support for NATO. We will be watching very carefully the support that our allies give us.”
The same message was delivered by two other senior committee members, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., who stressed that while they did not necessarily agree in such political linkage, many in the United States would not forgive Europe if it declined to maintain a common front against Iraq.
“Iraq’s continued efforts to maintain a biological and chemical weapons arsenal threaten peace in the Middle East and ultimately threaten us all,” McCain said. “We need to stick together to deny (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein this arsenal.”
In response, Kohl declared his government’s “full political backing and support” for the U.S. approach and offered to make air bases in his country available to U.S. aircraft involved in any Persian Gulf operation.
Kohl’s gesture appeared spontaneous but had little more than symbolic value, because Pentagon officials said they have no plans to use bases in Europe to stage any attacks on Iraq. Still, the offer was welcomed by Cohen, who departs Sunday for talks with leaders in the Persian Gulf states about U.S. war plans.
“I believe the best way to avoid any need to resort to military action in this regard is for all of our NATO friends, U.N. members, those in the Security Council in particular perhaps, to reaffirm their commitment to their own resolutions,” Cohen said.
Of the major NATO powers, only Britain is preparing to take part in any military campaign against Iraq. France is the other European power with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and military aircraft already positioned in the gulf region, helping U.S. and British squadrons enforce a ban of Iraqi military flights over southern Iraq. But the French, who have been attempting to mediate a diplomatic solution with Iraq, have not committed to participating in air strikes.
Cohen appeared to make little progress during a meeting with his French counterpart, Alain Richard, in gaining a French commitment to back military action should diplomacy fail.
“They are going to continue to seek a diplomatic solution and will continue to work at that effort,” Cohen said of the French position. “They will await the result of that effort before making any further determination.”
Cohen’s sessions with other defense ministers - George Robertson of Britain, Volker Ruehe of Germany and Beniamino Andreatta of Italy - drew stronger expressions of support, according to participants.