George Bush has moved to distance himself from his vice-president after it
was revealed that a saber-rattling speech on Iraq by Dick Cheney was made without
clearing key points with the White House.
In a clear sign of disarray at the top of the US administration it has emerged
that Mr Cheney may have gone too far in a bellicose address last week in which
he dismissed out of hand the usefulness of pushing for weapons inspectors to be
allowed back into Iraq.
That disarray inside the Bush team was compounded by renewed reports in the
US press last night that Colin Powell was planning to leave his job as secretary
of state at the end of the president's first term, potentially threatening Mr
Bush's re-election chances in 2004 by robbing him of a popular and moderate ally.
Mr Powell's recommendations for the administration to take a more multilateralist
line in foreign policy have repeatedly been ignored.
In an interview with the BBC broadcast yesterday, Mr Powell argued that UN
weapons inspectors should be sent back to Iraq as a "first step" towards dealing
with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, echoing the position taken by Britain
and the European Union.
Those comments directly contradicted the speech by Mr Cheney to US war veterans
last Monday. In that he said the inspectors "would provide no assurance whatsoever"
of Iraqi compliance with UN disarmament resolutions, and instead increase the
danger by providing "false comfort".
A European diplomat said: "As far as we can tell, the Cheney speech was a freelance
job which had not been cleared with other agencies." The diplomat believed that
included Mr Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
That impression was reinforced by a report in Newsweek magazine yesterday in
which the White House chief of staff, Andy Card, said that the president had not
authorized Mr Cheney's language on inspections, and it was toned down in a second
version of the speech delivered later in the week.
The report also quoted administration sources as saying that Mr Cheney had
failed to check the facts behind his allegations against Iraq with the CIA and
that the state department never saw the final text of the speech.
The implied criticism of Mr Cheney came as Tony Blair faced continuing pressure
to use his influence to press for re-engagement with the UN over Iraq, as well
as further warnings that he does not have Labour movement backing for a pre-emptive
attack on Saddam Hussein.
Nelson Mandela is reported to have called Mr Bush directly to urge against
a war and is also keen to persuade Mr Blair against such a move.
The Conservative party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, urged Mr Blair to make a
public case for a pre-emptive attack. The evidence on Saddam Hussein's weapons
and intent existed but the debate had been allowed to "drift" by the prime minister,
The issue of weapons inspectors is at the center of the debate within the Bush
administration between hawks, led by Mr Cheney and the defense secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, who believe the US should go it alone in toppling President Saddam and
moderates, led by Mr Powell and a phalanx of prominent figures in the Republican
party, who want to pursue the quarrel with Iraq through the UN.
Opinion polls yesterday showed the US public to be overwhelmingly on the side
of the moderates. In a Newsweek survey, 81% said it was important to gain the
formal support of the UN for military action and 86% said it was important to
get support from most of Washington's European allies.
Diplomats in Washington believe that the White House is considering approaching
the UN security council to seek a new ultimatum for Iraq to readmit weapons inspectors,
a course of action advocated by the EU last week.
Any future UN ultimatum will be hamstrung by the administration's oft-repeated
intention to pursue "regime change" irrespective of UN inspections, removing President
Saddam's incentive to comply. Mr Bush is due to address the UN general assembly
on September 12, by which time the White House is hoping to have clarified its
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002