Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 24, 2003; Page A01
The messages from U.S. embassies around the globe have become urgent and disturbing: Many people in the world increasingly think President Bush is a greater threat to world peace than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
U.S. embassies are the eyes and ears of the U.S. government overseas, and their reports from the field are closely read at the State Department. The antiwar protests by millions of people Feb. 15 in the cities of major U.S. allies underscored a theme that the classified cables by U.S. embassies had been reporting for weeks.
"It is rather astonishing," said a senior U.S. official who has access to the reports. "There is an absence of any recognition that Hussein is the problem." One ambassador, who represents the United States in an allied nation, bluntly cabled that in that country, Bush has become the enemy.
This shift in public opinion has presented the Bush administration with a much different set of circumstances than U.S. officials anticipated last September, when, in a bid to create a coalition to confront Iraq, Bush took the issue before the United Nations. It has seemed to embolden political leaders in Europe and elsewhere who have long been wary of military action. Although senior White House officials have insisted that U.S. policy toward Iraq will not be affected by public opinion, they acknowledged over the past few days that they need to confront the worldwide mood opposing a move to war.
Polls have indicated that Americans are more likely to support an invasion of Iraq if they believe it has international backing. Antiwar protests were held in dozens of American cities at the same time as the protests in other countries.
This week, the administration plans to begin a coordinated effort to draw attention to what one official called "the plight of the Iraqi people, with a focus on human rights and freedom and Saddam's brutality." As part of that initiative, the administration has scheduled a briefing today on Bush's plans for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in Iraq, with participants from the White House and the Pentagon.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell embarked late last week on a series of media appearances in Germany, France, Russia and the Middle East to help explain the administration's urgency in confronting Iraq over its banned weapons programs. "We know that there is great anxiety, that there are many, many people who do not want to see war," Powell told a Russian reporter.
Still, White House officials are unapologetic about their overall approach, which is based on forcing an early confrontation with Iraq rather than agreeing to the stated wishes of several European allies to allow U.N. weapons inspections to continue. White House officials even contend that they expected this change in momentum toward those opposing an early move to war.
Bush, in his public comments last week, appeared to shrug off the protests.
"History has proven that the closer you are to potential hostilities, the more vocal the opposition," White House communications director Dan Bartlett said. "There is always going to be a faction of people that don't agree. But I think anybody who gives a fair look at history on this will see that this president and this administration is acting responsibly and is attempting in every way possible to resolve this issue peacefully."
Bush said Tuesday that he had no intention of recalibrating his approach based on last weekend's global protests. "Size of protest, it's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group," Bush said. "The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security -- in this case, the security of the people."
Analysts and U.S. officials suggest a number of reasons the president has become the subject of such vitriol overseas. Some of it stems from personality: Bush's blunt manner and frequent references to religion appear especially grating to European ears, these analysts and officials say. But much of it is rooted in substantive questions about the role of U.S. power in the world and whether Bush is properly using it in his battle with Hussein.
"The debate [overseas] has not been about Iraq," a State Department official said. "There is real angst in the world about our power, and what they perceive as the rawness, the arrogance, the unipolarity" of the administration's actions.
But, pointing to Bush's seemingly dismissive statements about the protests, the official said the concerns reflected in cables from American "overseas posts" appeared to have little impact on White House decision-making.
Indeed, since the demonstrations, Bush has not acknowledged the concerns of the protesters or the fears they expressed, and he has not tried to counter their arguments that U.N. inspections must be allowed to continue.
"Democracy is a beautiful thing, and that people are allowed to express their opinion," Bush told reporters Tuesday. "I welcome people's right to say what they believe. Secondly, evidently some of the world don't view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace. I respectfully disagree."
Bush's unyielding rhetoric contrasted sharply with the approach of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose approval ratings have plunged because of his hard line against Hussein. During a news conference on Tuesday, Blair said that he does not "pretend to have a monopoly of wisdom in these issues," and that it is important to "have a dialogue" with opponents like the 1 million people who rallied in London in the largest political demonstration in that nation's history.
"There was a huge emphasis, I thought, by people on the march about the consequences of war, their fear about that, and I think it is important that we address that better," Blair said.
White House aides argue that an overwhelming case for action against Hussein has already been made. "At every step of the way, this administration has gone to unprecedented lengths to explain the threat -- even to the point of the secretary of state going before the U.N. Security Council and delivering classified information for the whole world to see," Bartlett said.
Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes world opinion shifted dramatically against Bush when, after the new year began, he signaled he was not committed to supporting continued inspections. Cirincione said U.S. allies had been relieved when Bush appeared to embrace resolving the issue through the United Nations last fall. "It now appears to be an elaborate con job," he said. "Other leaders feel manipulated and deceived."
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a staff member of the National Security Council during the Nixon administration, said there has been a natural progression in attitudes overseas. "It was antiwar, not anti-American. Now it's anti-Bush, not anti-American," he said. "That image is stuck in people's consciousness."
Another senior U.S. official acknowledged the administration has had "a rough week or so."
"That is a byproduct of a policy that is, let's face it, controversial," the official said. "You are dealing with such a wide array of allies and a wide array of their own concerns."
One official said that Bush took the Iraq question to the United Nations last September in part to be responsive to allies who were demanding that he do so. But, the official continued, Bush went to the world body with a full awareness "that our allies in Europe and developing nations look to the U.N. not only as a sounding board but as a point of leverage" against the United States.
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