Powell call for inspectors renews confusion over White House’s Iraq policy

WASHINGTON (The Los Angeles Times) — In a new sign of disarray within the Bush administration on Iraq policy, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Sunday appeared to contradict Vice President Dick Cheney by saying that America’s “first step” should be sending United Nations weapons inspectors back to Baghdad.

Cheney declared last week that it would be futile to return inspectors to a country that had thwarted them for years. He argued that what is needed is a pre-emptive military strike, not preventive diplomacy.

The apparent Powell-Cheney dispute came against a background of escalating disagreement and uncertainty among senior members of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, over whether to go to war with Iraq. Foreign-policy experts from previous administrations have also joined the debate.

Both Powell and Cheney claimed to speak for President Bush. Confusion over the president’s real intentions seemed to mount further Sunday with a report in Newsweek magazine that Bush had not told Cheney to rule out U.N. weapons inspectors and had not meant to slam the door on diplomatic options.

Bush has insisted that he has not made up his mind whether to invade Iraq. But a chorus of foreign-policy experts warned Sunday that the administration’s perhaps deliberate ambiguity on its war plans is creating an image of infighting and internal discord.

“What you have here is an administration where all the top people are fighting for the president’s ear, attention and views — and the president isn’t letting them know what he thinks. He remains AWOL on this whole issue,” said Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.

The lack of a consistent message about Bush’s plans “confuses Congress, the allies, the American public and even the Republican Party, which is at loggerheads about whether and how to move forward,” Daalder said.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called this a “summer of disarray” in the Bush camp.

“Instead of making the case unambiguously with a single group of people singing from the same song sheet, they’re singing at least, at minimum, different lyrics to the same music,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

And former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who served under the current president’s father, noted a “disconnect” between the vice president’s assertion that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses an imminent threat of nuclear blackmail and the president’s insistence that he has not made up his mind to act.

Eagleburger joined the growing group of advisers to the senior Bush now cautioning the junior Bush against taking military action without allies and without exhausting diplomatic options. Speaking on “Meet the Press,” he questioned why, if the Bush administration has compelling evidence that Hussein will soon have a nuclear weapon, it has been unable to convince its allies.

Also Sunday, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz said Iraq would not allow the U.N. weapons inspection team headed by Hans Blix back into Iraq.

“It’s a nonstarter because it’s not going to bring about a conclusion,” Aziz said on “CNN’s Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer.”

“We do not trust that Mr. Blix and his group are going to bring a conclusion within a reasonable time so that the United States and everybody in the world should know there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Aziz said. “Is the return of inspection going to stop the American attack on Iraq? There are doubts about that.”

Aziz repeated his invitation–already spurned–to allow members of Congress accompanied by experts to inspect any suspected weapons sites.

Bush administration officials have worried that asking the United Nations for yet another round of inspections in Iraq could ensnare the United States in a technical morass that would resolve nothing but would give Hussein more time to develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

But former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said Aziz’s stance would make it easier for the United States to bring its case before the United Nations, which would almost certainly take the position that Hussein would have to permit inspections. If he refused, Brzezinski said, the United States might consider a total embargo of Iraq, like the one mounted against Cuba in 1963, and, failing that, military action.

Powell, in an interview with the BBC, appeared to be signaling that the United States would make one last attempt to force Iraq to comply with the U.N. Security Council, which has designated Blix its chief inspector.

“The president has been clear that he believes weapons inspectors should return,” Powell said. “Iraq has been in violation of many U.N. resolutions for most of the last 11 or so years. And so, as a first step, let’s see what the inspectors find. ”

Amid the torrent of unsolicited advice to Bush from across the political spectrum, a consensus appeared to emerge Sunday that the president needs to do a better job of making his case to the public, to Congress, to U.S. allies and to the world.

Powell acknowledged the necessity of addressing international concerns, saying: “The world has to be presented with the information, with the intelligence that is available. A debate is needed within the international community so that everybody can make a judgment about this.”

Newsweek described a videoconference last week in which Bush, Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. discussed the speech the vice president was about to give to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville, Tenn. In that discussion, the president reportedly did not include rejecting arms inspectors among the points the vice president would make.

The magazine said administration officials later worried that Cheney’s public rejection of inspectors made the president look duplicitous in saying he has made no decision.