WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney today presented the administration's most forceful and comprehensive rationale yet for attacking Iraq, warning that Saddam Hussein would "fairly soon" have nuclear weapons.
Mr. Cheney said a nuclear-armed Mr. Hussein would "seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
The vice president's remarks, to a Nashville convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, came as White House advisers said they were increasingly concerned about the news accounts and the growing debate in Congress and among former high-ranking foreign policy officials over the administration's plans for Iraq.
Mr. Cheney's speech, which his advisers said he was still writing on Sunday, appeared intended to quell the confusion and present the administration as united behind the central idea that Mr. Hussein must be ousted, sooner rather than later.
"What he wants is time, and more time to husband his resources to invest in his ongoing chemical and biological weapons program, and to gain possession of nuclear weapons," Mr. Cheney said.
The risks of inaction, he said, "are far greater than the risk of action."
Administration officials said Mr. Cheney's views mirrored those of President Bush, and were part of an ongoing effort to convince the allies, Congress and the American public of the need for what the administration calls regime change in Iraq.
The officials said Mr. Bush was expected to discuss Iraq in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 12, although they said the extent and nature of Mr. Bush's remarks on Iraq were still under discussion.
The speech by Mr. Cheney was the most prominent of several steps taken today by the administration to build a public case for going to war against Iraq.
At the State Department, officials said they planned to begin a four-day program on Tuesday to train 17 Iraqi expatriates in publicizing the brutality of Mr. Hussein's rule. Last week, the State Department also used one of its Middle Eastern radio services to broadcast remarks by the third-ranking Pentagon official calling for the Iraqi people to overthrow Mr. Hussein.
In Crawford, Tex., an administration spokesman said White House lawyers had concluded that the administration did not need Congressional approval to attack Iraq. The spokesman, Ari Fleischer, asserted that previous Congressional resolutions, as well as the president's power as commander in chief, already gave him that authority.
Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Bush would "consult" with Congress about Iraq, although he pointedly refused to say whether the president would ask Congress to support an invasion through a vote, as his father did before the Persian Gulf war in 1991. The White House position that it does not need Congressional approval was first reported by The
Republicans said Mr. Cheney's speech, planned since early August, was intended to lay out the most serious and complete case for an attack on Iraq.
The speech appeared intended in particular to answer critics who say the administration lacks intelligence data on Iraq's nuclear abilities.
While Mr. Cheney argued that the administration could never know with precision the extent and type of Mr. Hussein's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, he said it would be perilous to underestimate "a dictator who has already shown his willingness to use such weapons."
"There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Cheney said. "There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us."
He cited as his sources Iraqi defectors, among them Mr. Hussein's son-in-law, Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamel, who Mr. Cheney said "was subsequently murdered at Saddam's direction."
General Kamel defected in 1995, was debriefed by the Central Intelligence Agency, returned to Iraq the next year and was then killed in a gun battle by family members.
Mr. Cheney also said it would be a useless, if not a dangerous delay, to seek a United Nations resolution requiring that Iraq submit to weapons inspectors, as the man who served as secretary of state for the first President Bush, James A. Baker III, argued in an opinion article in The New York Times on Sunday.
"Saddam has perfected the game of shoot and retreat, and is very skilled in the art of denial and deception," Mr. Cheney said. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever."
Mr. Cheney concluded that Mr. Hussein's threat made pre-emptive action against Iraq imperative, and noted that former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger had made the same argument in a recent opinion article in The Washington Post. He also appeared to try to counter those who have cautioned against war with Iraq, like Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush.
"What we must not do in the face of a mortal threat is to give in to wishful thinking or willful blindness," Mr. Cheney said. "We will not simply look away, hope for the best, and leave the matter for some future administration to resolve. As President Bush has said, `Time is not on our side.' "
Republicans who favor war with Iraq welcomed Mr. Cheney's speech, calling it a direct and clear-headed opening shot in a public relations campaign that many said had seemed to veer out of White House control for much of August.
"When Cheney talks, it's Bush," said William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and a hard-liner on Iraq. "I think the debate in the administration is over, and this is the beginning of the serious public campaign."
But other Republicans who caution against war with Iraq said Mr. Cheney's speech was another confusing signal from an administration whose debate over going to war has been uncharacteristically public.
"You've got the vice president making this detailed speech about why we should go to war," said Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who has been a frequent critic of the administration on Iraq. "The president is not saying anything."
The administration's message is confusing, Mr. Hagel said, adding that if the president wanted to go to war, "then he is going to have to step forward himself and make the case."
Members of the Senate and House said today that they expected Mr. Bush to ultimately seek Congressional approval, and some Republicans criticized the administration for asserting that it was not required.
"It's a matter for the Congress to decide," said Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania. "The president as commander in chief can act in an emergency without authority from Congress, but we have enough time to debate, deliberate and decide."
Other lawmakers said the administration's recent attempts to round up support for ousting Mr. Hussein had been been disjointed and sometimes contradictory.
"I do feel that generally the administration has not handled this well in recent months," said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut who is a leading Congressional proponent of invading Iraq. "They've been stuck in a gray area, a vacuum, in which opponents of military action and people who are just plain puzzled or anxious have begun to dominate the debate."
Last week, in a radio interview that was broadcast into Iraq from Kuwait, Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, called for the Iraqi people to overthrow Mr. Hussein. "The future that we see from Iraq is a future that would be based on the Iraqi people freeing themselves from the oppression they are now suffering," he said.