Bush unmoved by global protests

Feb. 18, 2003, 11:24PM
Vows to maintain pressure on Saddam
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau WASHINGTON –

Insisting he wouldn’t be swayed by the weekend’s global antiwar protests, President Bush said Tuesday he would continue to press Saddam Hussein to disarm or face military invasion.

The president said to heed the protesters would be akin to taking policy advice from focus groups.

“Evidently some of the world don’t view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace,” Bush said of demonstrations that drew millions to antiwar marches held in the United States, Europe, Australia and elsewhere. “I respectfully disagree. … War is my last choice. But the risk of doing nothing is even a worst option as far as I’m concerned.”

The president hailed as courageous those foreign leaders, particularly British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who have backed the White House on Iraq in the face of mounting criticism at home.

More than 1 million people turned out in London over the weekend to oppose Blair’s support of Bush on Iraq. And a new opinion poll shows Blair at his lowest public approval rating in more than two years.

But Bush said the magnitude of the worldwide demonstrations was irrelevant.

“First of all, you know, size of protest, it’s like deciding, well I’m going to decide foreign policy based upon a focus group,” said Bush. “The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon security, in this case the security of the people.”

Bush also noted he will meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar this weekend at his Crawford ranch. Aznar backs Bush’s Iraq policy, though he, too, is contending with public discord over that support. Several million protesters took to the streets in Spain as part of the global demonstration.

A protest coordinator said Bush missed the point of the events.

Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, said those opposed to Bush’s Iraq policy also believe Saddam is a threat to peace and should be disarmed. But they do not believe military action is the answer, he said.

“He’s wrong to rush to war without giving viable alternatives a chance,” said Andrews.

Bush’s defiant stand against the protesters’ message comes as he lobbies a divided U.N. Security Council to back a new resolution authorizing force against Saddam. The U.N. group late last year passed a resolution requiring Iraq to dispose of its weapons of mass destruction.

Officials said the United States, along with the British, will be drafting language for the measure that would give Iraqi leaders one final chance to disarm before facing military action. The administration hopes to have the resolution considered within the next two weeks.

Although Bush reiterated his contention that another resolution was not necessary, he added, “We’re working with our friends. As I said, a second resolution would be useful.”

But a number of countries, led by France and Germany, have opposed an attack on Baghdad and instead are pushing for more weapons inspections.

Bush received some support from other European countries Tuesday when 13 incoming members of the European Union backed a declaration warning Saddam he had one last chance to disarm. Also, 10 former communist countries in Europe repeated their support for the White House’s stand on Iraq.

However, the White House suffered a setback when the Turkish government postponed a vote in its parliament on whether to allow U.S. troops to be based there. Turkish leaders, who are negotiating an economic aid package with Washington in return for providing access to U.S. soldiers, want more concessions.

While the president dismissed the weekend antiwar protests, the size and scope of the demonstrations clearly caught the attention of the administration.

At his morning media briefing White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested that past peace protests have been misguided.

Fleischer said he had gathered newspaper stories from 1983 describing large protests in Europe against NATO’s deployment there of medium-range cruise missiles aimed at the former Soviet Union.

He said that despite the demonstrations, President Reagan refused to back down. “As a result, the Berlin Wall came down, and the message of the protesters — better neutral than dead — turned out to be a false message,” he said.

Basing the cruise missiles in Europe may have increased pressure on the Soviet Union to come to the bargaining table, but the action was not directly linked to the fall of communism. In 1987 — two years before the Berlin Wall came down — Reagan and Soviet leaders negotiated an agreement that called for the elimination of all medium-range missiles in NATO countries and the Soviet Union.

Experts say peace movements aren’t necessarily ineffective. Mark Lawrence, a history professor at the University of Texas, said large demonstrations against the Vietnam War were a factor in President Lyndon Johnson’s decision against a run for re-election and kept the pressure on President Nixon to withdraw U.S. troops from Southeast Asia.

Lawrence said the political danger in current antiwar protests is that, much like the Vietnam-era demonstrations, the movement is drawing mainstream Americans who Bush may need in his 2004 re-election bid.

“This is starting to galvanize people well beyond the kind of lefty fringes that are accustomed to events like this,” said Lawrence.