Seeking to prepare the American people for possible U.S. airstrikes soon against Iraq, President Clinton declared Tuesday that “force can never be the first answer, but sometimes it’s the only answer.”
In a televised address to the nation from the Pentagon, the commander in chief stressed again that he prefers a diplomatic solution to the confrontation with Iraq. But unless Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gives “unfettered access” to United Nations weapons inspectors soon, Clinton said, “let there be no doubt - we are prepared to act.”
If the U.S.-led coalition does not force the Iraqi president to comply now with long-standing U.N. resolutions demanding destruction of Baghdad’s biological and chemical weapons, Clinton said, Saddam “will conclude that the international community has lost its will.” He will then rebuild his lethal arsenal “and some day, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal.”
With nearly 33,000 U.S. troops, 344 airplanes and 28 ships expected in the Persian Gulf and nearby Indian Ocean, Clinton acknowledged that “no military action, however, is risk-free. I know that the people we may call upon in uniform are ready. The American people have to be ready as well.”
In reaction, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson put a sharp edge of partisan objection to Clinton’s plans. “Two weeks of diplomacy can’t make up for five years of Clinton administration neglect” of the Persian Gulf, he said. Nicholson added that “Clinton’s reductions in defense readiness have significantly reduced our options now that tensions are at the boiling point.”
In another dig, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said, “the administration’s proposal will put American lives at risk. The cost is too high if there is no clearly defined objective. The only objective that makes any sense is the destabilization of Saddam Hussein and his dangerous regime.”
Clinton should “slow down,” set a clear objective and rebuild a stronger international coalition to support a replacement for Saddam, Brownback said in a prepared statement.
Clinton’s midday address was the latest in a series of events the White House is orchestrating to convince Americans, the world - and Saddam himself - that a massive U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq is coming soon unless Saddam backs down.
To extend this public education effort, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and White House National Security Adviser Samuel Berger will address a citizen audience today at Ohio State University in Columbus. CNN will televise the event.
Tuesday’s remarks came in Clinton’s first speech on the crisis, but it might not be his last before bombs fall. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Clinton might address the nation “in a more formal way from the Oval Office” in the days ahead, but cautioned that “nothing’s scheduled at this point.” The administration has not announced any deadline for air strikes, but has warned repeatedly that time for diplomacy is running out.
The best apparent hope for a last-minute diplomatic solution lies with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said Tuesday evening that he will travel to Baghdad to make a personal appeal this weekend for Saddam to admit U.N. weapons inspectors.
Annan made his comments after the ambassadors from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China - negotiated the terms of his appeal to Saddam. But Clinton’s speech left no doubt that he will not compromise on the essential principle.
“A diplomatic solution must include or meet a clear, immutable, reasonable, simple standard,” Clinton said. “Iraq must agree, and soon, to free, full, unfettered access to these sites, anywhere in the country.”
U.N. negotiators were wrestling over how to word that message in ways that Saddam might accept. One might be to permit diplomats from Security Council members sympathetic to Iraq, such as Russia or China, to accompany U.N. weapons inspectors in their searches.
Asked if such formulations would be acceptable to the Clinton administration, McCurry repeated Clinton’s standard, but noted that “there are numerous modalities and details that might help accomplish that work, and they are under discussion at the United Nations now.”
Meanwhile Clinton prepared his nation for a military attack by laying out a prosecutor’s case against Saddam. The president reviewed Saddam’s history of secretly building and using weapons of mass destruction - especially biological and chemical ones - and lying and cheating when caught.
The president also recounted how the United Nations Special Commission, created after the 1991 Gulf War to find and destroy such Iraqi weapons, has met obstruction from Saddam’s regime every step of the way.
If force becomes necessary, the president said, “our purpose is clear: We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program. We want to seriously reduce his capacity to menace his neighbors.”
Saddam “could end this crisis tomorrow” by opening all suspect Iraqi sites anew to U.N. inspection, Clinton emphasized. Instead however, for months Saddam has ruled certain sites off limits, including eight “presidential palaces.”
In highlighting their suspicious nature, Clinton said that one compound in Baghdad encompasses 2,600 acres, compared with 18 acres for the White House. Another “palace” includes 40,000 off-limits acres - roughly the size of Washington, D.C., Clinton said.
The president painted Saddam as an example of the kind of threat that is increasingly likely to menace the world in the 21st century unless strong action is taken.
“If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity,” Clinton said.
As Clinton spoke to his countrymen, some of their representatives in Congress were raising warning flags.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sent an open letter to the president insisting that congressional approval is needed before any mass bombing campaign.
“Bomber and missile strikes constitute acts of war. Only Congress has the constitutional prerogative to authorize war,” Specter wrote before Clinton’s speech.
“There has been unanimity in our congressional discussions to support the men and women of our military forces. But that unanimity does not extend to giving the president a blank check.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TUESDAY’S DEVELOPMENTS Four U.S. warships arrive in Persian Gulf carrying 2,000 Marines and 25 helicopters. Total U.S. troops in gulf: More than 25,000. Bahrain, part of U.S.-led 1991 Gulf War coalition, says United States cannot use it as a staging area for strikes on Iraq. Militant Palestinian group Hamas threatens to attack Israeli targets if United States bombs Iraq. From wire reports