Selling the Saddam Attack to Skeptical Senators

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Shortly after his Middle East tour in March, Vice President Dick Cheney dropped in on a Senate Republican policy lunch. When it was time for him to brief the senators on his trip he began by saying, "I don't want anybody talking about this. It's sensitive." Senators and staffers put down their pens. Cheney, according to one person in the room, made it clear "it's not if, it's when we move militarily" against Saddam Hussein. Arab and European leaders, he insisted, were more open to a military operation than they let on publicly.

That's encouraging news for some members of Congress, such as Sen. John McCain, who supports the overthrow of Saddam, and only disagrees with Bush in how it should be accomplished. McCain believes the Iraqi opposition should be allowed a chance to overthrow Saddam before U.S. troops are sent in. "I don't think the opposition has been given nearly the opportunity that is warranted," McCain says. "I don't know if the opposition can overthrow Saddam Hussein or not. But I do know that if there is a chance they could we should seize that opportunity. It could save not only billions of dollars. It could also save American lives." The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, has been suspicious of the fractured Iraqi opposition, which has never been able to deliver on its promise of a united front against Saddam. Congressmen in the House believe the administration is waiting only for the Arab-Israeli conflict to cool and for weapons stocks depleted by the Afghan war to be replenished before it launches a military attack on Iraq. "By January of this year the Pentagon's toy box was empty," says a senior House foreign policy aide in close touch with the National Security Council. "But when it gets filled they attack."

The House doesn't have a unified view on Iraq, and opinions don't necessarily divide along party lines. GOP conservatives like Majority Whip Tom DeLay have joined ranks with pro-Israel Democratic congressmen like Tom Lantos and have argued for U.S. military force against Iraq because of the threat Saddam poses to Israel. Libertarian GOP congressmen and many liberal Democrats have yet to be convinced of the need to invade. International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde says he will support military action if the intelligence shows that Saddam clearly is getting a weapon of mass destruction. Hyde would back a U.S. operation to "preempt that."

Some senators and congressmen, however, see two potential roadblocks to an invasion. The first is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Washington will need logistical support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to launch an invasion and that won't come as long as Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other. "The reality of the Middle East is setting in on the administration's policy toward Iraq," says Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Right now there isn't one of our Middle East allies, including Turkey, that would be with us on an invasion."

The other major impediment to an invasion will come if Saddam says yes. If U.N. weapons inspectors are allowed to return to Iraq to conduct unfettered inspections, it will be far more difficult for the U.S. to get European and Arab backing for military force. European and Arab leaders have always feared Saddam's WMD potential more than Saddam himself. If he allows in inspectors, the Arab world and many European allies will declare victory and abandon the U.S. on the use of force. "The White House's biggest fear is that U.N. weapons inspectors will be allowed to go in," says a top Senate Democratic foreign policy aide.

In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats may support a war resolution, but before they do the White House will have to jump through two hoops. Bush will have to tell Democratic and Republican senators "how you do it," says this foreign policy aide. He'll have to explain how he'll deploy regular forces and mobilize the reserves — particularly if he plans an invasion force of 250,000 — and he'll have to satisfy senators that he's made his case for an invasion before the American people. Second, Bush will have to spell out "what happens after you succeed," says this senior aide. Will the administration remain in Iraq for the long haul after Saddam is overthrown? "Who fills the vacuum?" asks Sen. John Warner, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Are there persons who exist who can step in and gain the confidence of the Iraqi people and lead that nation?" Bush, he argues, must "inform the American people and others of the consequences of a significant military action to take out Saddam Hussein.

Hagel says the administration also has to prove that Saddam poses an "urgent" threat. Every U.S. ally agrees that Saddam is a bad guy and represents a long-term threat to the region. "But how urgent is this threat?" asks Hagel. "We don't know. I have yet to meet any of our allies or to be told in a briefing that the threat is urgent."