MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. and Britain continued their campaign today to persuade six undecided countries-- Chile and Mexico, Angola, Cameroon, and Guinea, plus Pakistan-- to support a resolution imposing a deadline for Iraq to disarm or face war. For the latest developments, we turn to two New York Times reporters: White House correspondent David Sanger, and Felicity Barringer, who covers the U.N. Welcome to you both.
David, as we just reported, or Ari Fleischer said today the White House was willing to at least stretch the deadline beyond the March 17 that's currently in the draft resolution. Why? Does that reflect a White House view or administration view that they may be within striking distance of these votes and it's just a matter of extending the deadline?
DAVID SANGER: I think the trick here, Margaret, is separating out what the White House view is and what the White House hope is. This is the biggest diplomatic crisis of Mr. Bush's presidency at this point. We know how determined they are on Iraq. There's no question about that. The question is, how skilled are they at getting the rest of the world there? At this point they wanted to set a deadline of the 17th and be free from that moment to conduct military action if they need to. The pressure on them to move on that is tremendous.
Tony Blair has got a problem, as you reported before, and so at this point the president is on the phone each day to every one of these leaders. He's trying to move them. The theory is that they'll move in groups. With the Africans if one goes they'll all go - that Mexico and Chile would go together, but the problem is no one wants to go first because no one wants to commit here before they have to and no one wants to commit until they determine they're on the winning side.
MARGARET WARNER: But do they feel that the issue... I mean, is the issue a question of time or is it a question of ultimatum in the White House view? You hear the French say, "we don't care what the deadline is. If the deadline involves an ultimatum, we're against it."
DAVID SANGER: In the White House view, there is honor in winning the vote and losing the veto. So if they could get nine or ten, and then it was vetoed by the French, they could say politically this action has legitimacy. That's all they're seeking here. Is some kind of legitimacy around it. Remember it was Kofi Annan who came out yesterday and said if you do this contrary to the Security Council you may be violating the U.N. charter. The White House doesn't believe that or at least it says it doesn't but at the same time if they could have that and then say, if it wasn't for the French, we'd be there, then I think they would feel a lot more comfortable. The problem is I haven't talked to anybody today who thinks that they are there, and many think them won't get there. The president went pretty far out as you heard Ari Fleischer go pretty far out and say there will be a vote.
MARGARET WARNER: This week.
DAVID SANGER: This week.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Felicity, tell us -- the other news today that at least was widely reported was that the six undecideds or at least the Cameroon ambassador said they'd come up with a counterproposal with a deadline extended for 45 days. Now, Ari Fleischer of course as we reported knocked that down but how did that fly at the U.N.?
FELICITY BARRINGER: Well there's been a lot of talk about possible movement on the time issue. Particularly among the group that you identified that are called here the middle six. The 45-day proposal is associated with Cameroon. A 30-day window is associated with Chile. But there has been... what they all have in common is a sense that they want a little more time. The three tools that they're dealing with here in terms of these negotiations are time, tests and, as you mentioned and David mentioned, a trigger for action.
If they can come up with the right mix of something that the Americans will agree to that is not too long and something the middle six can agree to that doesn't feel as if it's pointlessly short amount of time, then they may have some room for getting these votes. If they can create a kind of series of tests-- they don't want to call them benchmarks-- but tests, questions, something that would allow an objective observer to say, "Saddam Hussein has or has not passed that test," then they could pull perhaps, they hope, some of these votes along. But the issue of the trigger is... could be a real deal- breaker with a country like France which has, as I said, already said it will not... it will veto something that leads to automatic war.
MARGARET WARNER: But I mean are the six undecideds, from your reporting, are they willing to accept the idea that whatever the time, whatever the test, there would be a trigger, there would be an ultimatum?
FELICITY BARRINGER: They have held their hands... they've played their cards very close to the vest on that particular issue, but I think it is certainly the hope on the American side and the British side is that they would accept some sort of test because everybody has said that Saddam needs to be forced into compliance and therefore they might accept some kind of trigger.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain to us, David, this idea of benchmarks, they don't want to call it that, or tests that Saddam would have to meet. I understand both the British and I think the Canadians who are not on the Security Council right now but have been very active have been talking about that. How would that actually work and is the White House on board for that idea?
DAVID SANGER: I think the White House is on board but any really want to let Britain do the big push here. Because I think the president's view is that once Washington is viewed as negotiable, then everybody will go back into their shells and avoid casting a vote, trying to stretch it out. So, there's sort of a good cop/bad cop routine happening here.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean they let the British go out there....
DAVID SANGER: And see what they get and decide whether to endorse it.
MARGARET WARNER: And then they say gee let me see if I can sell it to Washington.
DAVID SANGER: Right. That gives them a little bit of flexibility. Now, the kind of test that Prime Minister Blair was talking about the other day was, for example, setting out some number of scientists that could be interviewed outside the country without tape recorders, without minders, certainly setting out what kind of declarations that Iraq would have to make to prove that they destroyed some of the chemical and biological. I think Iraq is probably on the way to meeting the test on the missiles but that is in some ways the easiest and the most acknowledged. The concern that a lot of countries have is that the Bush administration, if you don't set out these tests, will keep moving the goal posts. But remember, 1441 has more than just disarmament in it. It has restoring funds that were stolen from the Kuwaitis. It has human rights tested and so forth. So there's a lot of room here for the administration to say that Saddam Hussein has still not met all of the requirements.
MARGARET WARNER: Felicity, what are you hearing in New York about the lobbying that's going on not in New York not in Washington but let's say in Africa. The French foreign minister was there earlier this week. I understand one of Tony Blair's top ministers is there today. Do the French feel they made any headway?
FELICITY BARRINGER: The French have always been projecting an air of great confidence particularly with regard to the African countries. I think there is a certain amount very much like any vote in any legislature, there's a certain amount of posturing on both sides that, hey, we have the votes. The French have felt very confident of the African countries for a while. But I'm not sure either side can feel confident of winning those votes without letting a couple more days pass and see how these negotiations by the British go, because I think one of the things that all the members of the Security Council are watching is exactly how much rope the Americans are going to give the British, how much the British can put out there to try and bring these votes in. That counts for the Africans as much as anyone else, but the French have felt for a couple of weeks now that it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for the Americans to get the vote.
MARGARET WARNER: That is the question, David. What's your sense from talking to all the people you talk to at the White House about how far the White House is willing to go here? How badly do they want this? Do they want this anywhere near as badly as the British? And what are they willing to give?
DAVID SANGER: I don't think they want it as much as the British do, Margaret. As Felicity said, there's a certain amount here of getting into the bidding and trying to make sure that you're persuading each side but when it comes down to it, Tony Blair needs this because he needs to get another vote in parliament approving combat action. At least he's committed politically that he will do that. President Bush already has that. He's got his authorization from Congress. He's got his plan in place. He wants to move forward. There are some... there are some in the White House or at least in this administration particularly on the more hawkish side who are perfectly comfortable saying the U.N. failed and we're going to go out and do this ourselves. You heard a little bit of this from Ari Fleischer yesterday when he talked about creating another organization that would do this, and that was just, of course, the coalition of the willing.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you both, Felicity and David.
DAVID SANGER: Thank you.
FELICITY BARRINGER: Thank you.