John King: Blair bolsters Iraq case
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein operates a weapons of mass destruction program that is "active, detailed and growing."
In a speech to the House of Commons, Blair elaborated on a 50-page British intelligence dossier -- published in advance -- that says Iraq is continuing to develop such weapons and has the ability to deploy them within an hour's time.
CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King says that while Blair's speech might not have contained much new information, his support against Iraq is critical for President Bush.
King spoke with CNN's Paula Zahn shortly after the prime minister's speech.
KING: No surprises in the speech, but the emphasis and the emphatic nature in which it was delivered -- much as President Bush has tried in recent days -- the prime minister basically challenged the United Nations: "How can you not act? How can you not adopt a tough new resolution in the face of this 11-year history?"
And some subplots to that -- you heard the prime minister discussing Iraq's missile capability. That is what President Bush has cited in saying that the United States would act with Britain outside of the United Nations if necessary because he says those missiles can reach U.S. troops in the region as well as Israel, of course.
And that is also a message to the Arab nations. Prime Minister Blair and President Bush have said in private conversations with the Arab nations that Saddam Hussein is developing longer-range missiles. He has attacked an Arab country before when he invaded Kuwait. What is to say he will not do it again?
That is part of the quiet diplomacy with Arab nations who publicly are quite skeptical about a military confrontation but who privately -- we are told, and Prime Minister Blair alluded to it -- would very much like the neighborhood cleaned up. They're just worried that any military operation could be messy and leave Saddam Hussein in power.
ZAHN: He was specifically talking about Saddam Hussein having retained missiles that have a 400-mile range?
KING: Four hundred-mile range and growing. Scud missiles -- about 20, they say in the intelligence report. About 20 medium-range Scud missiles, they believe, are still in Saddam's possession after the Gulf War, even though he was supposed to destroy all of them.
And what Prime Minister Blair is saying is that the experts in those programs have been reconstituted. And according, at least, to the British intelligence agencies, there's evidence in the last year or so that Saddam Hussein has entered a new phase in that development, trying to extend the range of those missiles to a longer range -- certainly within range of Afghanistan, within range of U.S. troops and British troops in that region and certainly within range of most of the Middle East, including Israel.
ZAHN: This speech was very much part of a coordinated effort with the White House.
KING: Prime Minister Blair and President Bush are shoulder to shoulder in this effort -- first, to make the case that the United Nations should step up and adopt a new resolution to put Iraq on notice: "Comply with all of your commitments to the United Nations or face military strikes."
President Bush has been making that case. Prime Minister Blair has been making that case. Much of the skepticism has been in Europe, so Prime Minister Blair got out with the new report detailing British intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs, and this powerful speech [was] an effort to sway public opinion, not only in Great Britain but across Europe as well.
So the two leaders are standing side by side, saying they want the United Nations to act -- they are demanding that it act -- but also making it clear they are prepared to act as partners if the United Nations does not rise to the challenge.
One distinction -- you did hear Prime Minister Blair, at the end of his speech, saying his goal is disarmament, not regime change. He said he would love to see Saddam Hussein removed from power, but that that is not his public goal -- that the public goal of any military action or of diplomacy would be disarmament.
This president says his ultimate goal is regime change, and he makes no bones about that at all.
ZAHN: Let's talk a little bit about how this speech might play with the American public, particularly at a time when CNN/USA Today came out with a new poll which suggests that 49 percent of those who are going to vote in the midterm election feel that the issue of Iraq is more important than the economy. That is a big change from just in August.
KING: It is a big change, and it's a reflection of the power of the bully pulpit of the presidency. President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney have put a primary focus on the Iraq issue as they travel the country campaigning for Republican candidates, raising money for Republican candidates and in their speeches here in Washington and the president's visit to the United Nations.
Prime Minister Blair also gives the president very important political cover in the sense that you've heard the prime minister say to the critics who say this is a reckless rush to some military action, "Look at the examples of Kosovo and Afghanistan."
So for anyone in the United States who might be skeptical about this and thinking that President Bush is going off on his own, there is Prime Minister Blair -- who has stood by previous U.S. presidents, most notably Bill Clinton, a Democrat -- saying that the United States would have a partner in this adventure. That helps President Bush politically here at home.
ZAHN: What is clear from this poll also is that the majority of Americans do not support the idea of going it alone. But the numbers change drastically if you have the support of the United Nations -- 79 percent of those polled say they would support U.S. troops going into Iraq if the U.N. supports it.
KING: And that is a dynamic here in the United States and also overseas. Many Arab nations say if the U.N. Security Council adopted a new resolution that put military force on the table, those countries -- as members of the United Nations -- would feel compelled to allow the United States and Great Britain to publicly use their military bases.
That is why the president went to the United Nations. But it is also why he reserves the right to act outside of the United Nations. The next several days will be a key test of whether the president and the prime minister -- whether all this lobbying, all these speeches, all this intelligence information -- can sway the debate in the Security Council.
U.S. and British diplomats are working on the language of a new resolution. They have been delaying its public release because they're privately lobbying France, Russia and China -- three countries with veto power on the Security Council. That language, we are told, could be ready as early as [Tuesday] or [Wednesday].
The president is demanding action by the Security Council. In that [September 12] speech to the United Nations, the president said the U.N.'s credibility is at stake. This president and the prime minister of Great Britain -- their influence on the world stage is at stake as well -- in the sense of whether they can sway the United Nations and force it to step up here.
But again, the subtext of the prime minister's remarks and the president's speech as recently as [Monday] is, yes, they would like that; they would like to work in concert with the United Nations. But they make no mistake about it that they will act outside of the United Nations if -- as the president says -- the United Nations fails to meet the challenge.
ZAHN: And yet despite the administration's efforts to continue to move public opinion in the United States, in one of the more interesting findings in this poll, it appears the American public believes Osama bin Laden represents a far greater threat to the United States than does Saddam Hussein.
KING: We just went through the one-year anniversary of September 11. The administration is acutely aware of that criticism. And it was obvious that Prime Minister Blair is as well -- as he said at the end of his speech, not only would the war on terrorism continue, but efforts to rebuild Afghanistan would continue.
Look for [U.S.] Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld to make more of this case. He's at a NATO defense ministers' meeting right now.
The president makes the case that the United States can continue the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the pursuit of al Qaeda and perhaps now be engaged in a military confrontation with Iraq.
The president says the U.S. military can do both jobs, very difficult jobs, at once. There has been some skepticism in Congress. There has been skepticism from retired generals in the military, some of whom testified before Congress [on Monday].
And that certainly is an urgent priority for the American people who remember the pain of September 11 a year ago, and, if asked to choose -- find those responsible for September 11 or pursue Saddam Hussein -- a large number, a plurality in some polls, a majority would put Osama bin Laden as the top priority.