With surprise diplomatic initiative, Bush buys more time to maneuver


WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, with new time to pursue its options in the Persian Gulf, moves this week to use some of that time on the home front to protect the president's flexibility to manage the crisis.

In congressional hearing rooms on Capitol Hill, and in the U.S. Courthouse at the foot of the Hill, top administration aides and lawyers will be trying to exploit the momentum that even influential Democrats conceded President Bush had regained with new diplomatic gestures last week.

Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., who was singled out for criticism by the president last week, termed Mr. Bush's decision to talk with the Iraqis "absolutely brilliant," because it allowed him to open negotiations without appearing to back away from his threat to use force.

Outside of government, William B. Quandt, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution and former senior staff member of the National Security Council, predicted that Mr. Bush's new diplomatic thrusts would cut off much of the critical debate in Congress and the general public. "It's a masterstroke in terms of domestic politics," he said.

Whatever the short-term assessment of Mr. Bush's use of his regained initiative, he will have to continue to contend with the fact that two and possibly all three of the branches of government here will be jousting over the gulf crisis for the next six weeks, at least. That is the time interval for what is now commonly referred to here as the "countdown" before the United States would be free to use force against Iraq, under the United Nations Security Council resolution.

The consensus here this weekend seemed to be that skepticism of the military option on the home front had deepened when critics of a combat strike took the initiative but that Mr. Bush had been able to offset that somewhat, first by focusing on global diplomacy at the United Nations and abroad, and then by surprise disclosures of other diplomatic alternatives to an early use of force.

A significant number of key officials and lawmakers, and outside commentators, were suggesting that those shifting patterns -- focusing some of the time on the military option, some of the time on the diplomatic track -- would persist at least through the remaining month that Congress stays in recess.

It became almost certain Friday that there would be no special session of Congress, proposed by some Senate Republicans, and that the lawmakers would return as scheduled on Jan. 3.

Observers here seemed also in agreement that the gulf crisis would nevertheless continue to keep the tension level high between the White House and Capitol Hill. That tension, it was suggested, would be felt most deeply each time the political focus here returns -- even if only temporary -- to the talk of military action.

In fact, the president's continued heavy stress on the backup threat of military force, spelled out in even tougher language Friday, had the effect of keeping some pressure on him to justify force even as a potential, near-term option.

As Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday in reaction to the president: "What is emerging in the public mind is the view that the president has already chosen his preferred course of action in the crisis -- going to war. The core problem is that a large number of people in this country do not support that option, at least not yet."

Mr. Aspin added: "If President Bush believes war is necessary, he must make his case to the public now. If he fails to do so, he invites disaster and a country as divided as it was during Vietnam."

Democrats, in particular, seemed reluctant this weekend to let go even momentarily of the discussion of the force option. Mr. Bush thus appeared to be confronted with the prospect of declining political support for the use of U.S. troops -- thus diminishing, if not taking away, his opportunity to use force even after that becomes available Jan. 15.

Sentiment already seems strong in Congress against any specific authorization for the use of force against Iraq any time soon, even in the unlikely event that Mr. Bush should ask for it.

The administration will be given further chances this week to explain its view of the options and to make its case for continued flexibility for the president, as high-level officials journey to Capitol Hill to testify and Justice Department lawyers go into court to head off a demand by 45 Democratic members of Congress that a federal judge order Mr. Bush to ask Congress for specific permission to use force in the gulf region.

The president came close Friday to ruling out any request at any point for Congress to authorize him to use force in the Middle East. Mr. Bush's remarks on that issue were being interpreted by some on Capitol Hill as a "dare" to Congress to try to insist upon an equal role in deciding whether a U.S. assault is to begin.

Leading Democrats have been insisting that the president must have Congress' specific approval, in advance, before U.S. forces are sent in to liberate Kuwait or to attack Iraq directly, but the president has been unwilling to commit himself to do that and has contended that the Constitution does not require him to ask permission.

If the 45 House Democrats win their constitutional case in federal court, however, the president could find himself under a judicial order to go to Congress for permission. That is the kind of order U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene will be exploring at a hearing Tuesday.

The Justice Department, after failing to get that case moved away from Judge Greene, a jurist with a reputation for a thick skin and an independent mind, has been taking the legal threat seriously.

Mr. Bush did not hesitate to express his own discomfort with the second-guessing that some in the administration saw in last week's Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, which produced day after day of testimony suggesting that it was much too soon to talk of a military option and that Mr. Bush had not made a case for that yet.

At his news conference Friday, the president referred somewhat VTC sarcastically to "endless hearings and endless experts."

Some officials expressed confidence that the administration could rebound this week. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discuss the military deployment and plans tomorrow with the Senate Armed Services Committee, while Secretary of State James A. Baker III is expected to promote administration policy before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday and the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday. The House Armed Services Committee is also likely to begin wide-ranging hearings next week, although dates for appearances by Mr. Cheney and General Powell have not been settled.

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