WASHINGTON -- President Bush's last-ditch attempt to prevent a Mideast war by proposing talks with the Iraqi president may have backfired, coming across as a sign of weakness, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said yesterday.
"There are some indications that when the president offered direct talks that the Iraqis thought the president had blinked," Mr. Scowcroft told a group of regional newspa
per editors and reporters at the old Executive Office Building.
The situation illustrates a familiar dilemma the administration has faced in the course of the crisis. Officials have tried to convince Iraq that the United States is willing to go to war even while reassuring Americans that the United States is doing its utmost to avoid war.
Indeed, Mr. Bush, talking to the journalists, suggested the talks in an effort to show Congress and the public that he was willing to go "the last mile" in trying to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was to have come to Washington Monday, but the visit was delayed after the two countries failed to agree on a date for a visit by Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad.
bTC The only date Iraq was willing to set was Jan. 12 -- three days before a U.N. deadline for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait.
"I think it's pretty obvious that it's a case of them using this for manipulative purposes, not the purpose which we had in mind," Mr. Scowcroft said.
"Right now we're still waiting to see if they change their mind. I think we need to let the dust settle a little bit and see whether or not the Iraqis are really serious about a meeting."
Mr. Bush and Mr. Scowcroft also said the administration had discussed with its allies the possibility of an attempt by Mr. Hussein to break the coalition arrayed against Iraq by an attack ++ against Israel.
"I'm convinced the coalition would not fall apart" if Iraq attacked Israel, Mr. Bush said. "I can't give you the specifics on it, but I'm absolutely convinced of it, and you can assume, the way I've answered the question, that we've inquired about that."
Mr. Scowcroft said that with such a ploy, Mr. Hussein would "try to change the character of any conflict by drawing the Israelis in and thus arguing that this is a war for Zionism, not a war for the punishment of aggression and the liberation of Kuwait." He added that "we don't necessarily expect that to happen."