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S P E C I A L: The Standoff with Iraq

Albright finds Southern audiences polite, but skeptical

Madeleine Albright at the University of South Carolina  

In this story:

February 19, 1998
Web posted at: 8:46 p.m. EST (0146 GMT)

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- Cheers and standing ovations greeted U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright Thursday, but U.S. threats to use force against Iraq ran afoul of skeptical Americans for the second straight day.

A day after a stormy town meeting in Columbus, Ohio, Albright met with college students in Nashville, Tennessee, and Columbia, South Carolina, as the Clinton administration continued its attempts to rally support for its hard-nosed policy on Iraq.

And while Albright was greeted with an honor guard, a marching band and old-fashioned Southern courtesy -- rather than the jeers and taunts she ran into in Ohio Wednesday -- she also found her audiences informed and willing to question authority.

Everette Freeman, executive assistant to the president of Tennessee State University, told students in Nashville, "Let's give the opposite impression to the one that was given at Ohio State," he said. "Let's make it fun for Dr. Albright. This is not a wake."

Albright even took a pre-arranged phone call on stage in Nashville from a member of the U.S. women's ice hockey team, which won the gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Japan.

"We are very excited for you," Albright told Cammi Granato.

But questioners focused on whether Iraq is a threat to national security, and concerns for the welfare of innocent Iraqi civilians. There were also doubts about the rationale for taking action that stops short of removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power.

A U.S. soldier in Kuwait  

Iraq likened to Vietnam

In Nashville, one man drew parallels with the U.S. entry into the Vietnam War, and another wondered whether it was practically feasible to hit the suspected chemical and biological sites that are to be targeted "when Saddam is playing musical chairs with his weapons."

In Columbia, a questioner asked whether long-term U.S. interests would be helped by striking Iraq, and if it might not mean the need for more attacks later.

"None of us would deny this is a very complicated issue," Albright conceded. "If there were a simple solution, I think it would have been taken care of a long time ago."

On Wednesday, Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger were ambushed not only by hecklers, but by the skeptical tone of the questions in Ohio.

Sources say White House aides called Democratic leaders after that town meeting and promised that the administration would make a better case for its policy.

As a result, Albright was dispatched to more accommodating settings Thursday and even used a globe and a map as she sought to convince her listeners that what takes place on the other side of the world is vital to U.S. interests.

Protesters voice their opinions outside the White House Thursday  

'The message is confused and inconsistent'

Standing before a map of the Middle East and using rhetoric reminiscent of that used by then-President George Bush in 1991 before the Gulf War, she vilified Hussein as the most evil man the world had seen since Hitler.

She said Hussein must be stopped now from developing chemical and biological weapons, but said it was not part of the U.S. goal to remove him.

A chemistry major at Tennessee State University asked why the United States was not trying to overthrow Hussein. "I know that you are a chemistry student," Albright said, "but ultimately biology will work and he will disappear."

Analysts say the American people are not likely to be convinced by appearances such as Albright's unless officials explain why air strikes should be limited to diminishing Iraq's capacity to build weapons.

"The problem is the message," said former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle. "The message is confused and inconsistent. It posits a problem, but does not provide a convincing solution. Only if the problem and the solution are in balance can they hope to convince a skeptical public."

Albright returned to Washington from Columbia for a White House meeting of President Clinton's top national security advisers, including Cohen and Berger.

Correspondents Ralph Begleiter and Eileen O'Connor and Reuters contributed to this report.

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