Decoding the Headlines About Iraq

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The last time an American president made war on Iraq, he gathered his aides together and quietly told them what to do. He dispatched some on secret missions to round up cash from rich countries without armies, others to nail down overflight rights from nations that preferred to sit on the fence. He saw to the freezing of Iraqi assets and the movement of U.S. warships, troops and planes — and when they were in position, he mounted a worldwide diplomatic push for war. Only later did he let the public in on the details. Even some of George H.W. Bush's best friends later admitted that they couldn't really believe he'd pulled it off.

But now that another Bush Administration is packing for a trip to Baghdad, the son's method in no way resembles the father's. For President George W. Bush's team isn't so much preparing for war with Iraq as it is fighting a war with itself about whether and how to fight. The battle is oddly, alarmingly, public. The battlefield — not southern Iraq this time but the front pages of various newspapers — is strewn with bickering Bush aides and unnamed generals. Amid all the leaking and counterleaking, Bush's own comments about his aims keep shifting — which may explain why those of everyone around him do too.

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Sometime last spring the President ordered the Pentagon and the cia to come up with a new plan to invade Iraq and topple its leader. He feared that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction and might link up with remnants of al-Qaeda for another attack on America. At first, the timetable called for action this fall, but then the Middle East exploded, India and Pakistan started to rumble, and Afghanistan slid toward chaos again — all of which helped push back the expected mobilization until at least early next year. And now that the U.S. economy seems to be downshifting again, Iraq may have to wait — some think forever. As a top official from one Middle East ally put it last week, "Iraq is over. The window is closed."

That hasn't stopped the warriors from skirmishing. It began in April, when Pentagon sources leaked word to the New York Times that an Iraqi war would require as many as 250,000 troops. That was standard procedure — warning the White House and Congress that a march to Baghdad would mean more casualties than they realized. It was also a signal. Says a former service Secretary: "The generals don't want to put kids in harm's way for what they think is a fool's errand."

That led to a second wave of leaks from various factions proposing cheaper, safer alternatives: Air Force and Special Operations teams wanted an Afghanistan-style operation, with commandos and bombers coordinating (in theory, anyway) with Iraqi opposition groups. That approach had backing from key officials, notably Wayne Downing, a retired Army general in charge of coordinating the war on terrorism. The Central Command chief, Army General Tommy Franks, rejected it because he believes the opposition isn't up to the job. "There are 24 divisions of the Iraqi army," an Army officer told Time. "There's a limit to how much you can do with guys on horseback and B-52s." Not long after Downing's plan fell out of favor, he announced he was leaving the government.

But when the basics of Franks' own secret plan — a three-pronged attack on Iraq from Turkey, Kuwait and Jordan — appeared in the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times, the front-page war became too costly. Not only was a good secret loose, but the U.S. had a diplomatic snafu to clean up: Jordan relies on next-door neighbor Iraq for oil and wasn't keen about being dimed out as an enemy-in-waiting by a handful of U.S. Army colonels. Amman declared, as Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher told Time, "Jordan's territory will not be used as a launching pad against Iraq in any way, now or in the future."

Bush officials tried to shut down the cross fire on Thursday, telling USA Today that no full-scale invasion could take place without a "significant provocation,'"such as the invasion of Kuwait that started the Gulf War. That's a far cry from the policy Bush unveiled at West Point last month, when he warned nations harboring weapons of mass destruction that the U.S. reserves the right to make preemptive strikes against them. And because hardly anyone thinks Saddam Hussein would be foolish enough to repeat his 1990 mistake, it suggested anew that Washington is engaged more in psy-war than in war itself.