WASHINGTON -- While Saddam Hussein's raving from Baghdad built war fever in Washington last week, calming forces worked behind the scenes. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage have had a heart-to-heart talk with President Bush about the difficulties of initiating war with Iraq. Other influential voices were cautioning against an imminent attack to drive Saddam from power.
The climate is not propitious for a major U.S. military initiative. Official opposition from Germany, Saudi Arabia and Jordan underlined the isolation of American power. A deteriorating situation in Afghanistan builds the one-war-at-a-time argument. The steadfast Republican voices of Jack Kemp and Brent Scowcroft urge restraint. So do members of Congress from both parties, with House Majority Leader Dick Armey last Thursday warning against an unprovoked attack on Iraq.
None of this erases George W. Bush's commitment to change the regime in Baghdad. Nor does it dilute the immense influence of Vice President Dick Cheney, who broke his silence last week to warn against permitting Saddam to develop weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, there was a palpable muffling of American war drums.
The influence of Powell and Armitage is most important. Their war hawk critics have been spreading rumors that they are on their way out after two years. In fact, their meeting with the president explaining the pitfalls of an Iraq attack was productive. In Madison, Miss., last Wednesday, Bush declared: "I promise you that I will be patient and deliberative, that we will continue to consult with Congress, and, of course, we'll consult with our friends and allies."
Powell and Armitage, who normally do not spend much private time with the president, are described as having walked Bush through consequences of a unilateral U.S. attack with little support from European allies and hostility from moderate Arab states. Their meeting followed the effective visit of Jordan's King Abdullah. He made clear to Bush that though few tears would be shed over Saddam's eventual demise, an American attack on an Arab state should not be launched amid Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
Precisely that point has been made by a prestigious non-Arab. As a pillar of the Republican foreign policy establishment, Gen. Scowcroft for months had been turning down invitations from Sunday televised talk shows because he did not want
to oppose the administration led by his former chief's son. But by Aug. 4, he was concerned enough to go on CBS's "Face the Nation." "To attack Iraq while the Middle East is in terror and America appears not to be dealing with something which to every Moslem is a real problem . . . ," said Scowcroft, "I think could turn the whole region into a cauldron."
Jack Kemp felt inhibitions, similar to Scowcroft's, about breaking away from Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other old colleagues. But in his Aug. 6 newspaper column, the former vice-presidential nominee demanded "incontrovertible evidence of Iraqi participation or complicity in 9-11" -- evidence that is lacking. "I don't believe we are ready to start another war," added Kemp, "when Afghanistan has yet to be pacified and the Middle East, as King Abdullah said, remains in chaos requiring our attention."
The sentiment is spreading. Sen. Carl Levin, a liberal Democrat from Michigan, has moved toward the skepticism of Sen. Chuck Hagel, a conservative Republican from Nebraska. Levin calls Saddam a "survivalist" who would not employ any available chemical or biological weapons that would sign his own death warrant but would lash back in desperation if attacked. Hagel now embraces that view. Sen.
Pat Roberts of Kansas, a well-informed Republican, wonders when "pre-emption" replaced "deterrence" as basic U.S. strategy.
Doughty cold warrior Richard Perle, a hero of the victory over Soviet Russia, at the moment terrorists struck Sept. 11 laid out a strategy enjoying strong support in the Bush administration: the U.S., aligned with Israel against Islam and the Arab world, with the removal of Saddam Hussein even more important than pacifying Afghanistan. That strategy was pursued by Perle as head of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board when he recently invited a briefer who depicted Saudi Arabia as a terrorist state. President Bush is now being implored by friends and supporters to turn away from this dangerous course.