Summer of Saddam

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An artist secures a poster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad

The first battle of President George W. Bush's war on Iraq is already underway — but Washington, rather than Baghdad, is the battlefield. All summer the chatter over whether, where and how to use U.S. military force to bring down Saddam Hussein has grown increasingly urgent. Hardly a day goes by without some new battle plan being leaked to the media or some ally warning against going to war. Virtually everyone agrees the world would be a better place without Saddam. But that's about all they agree on, leaving the President's advisers and allies fiercely divided on what may well be the defining decision of the his presidency. In this, the Summer of Saddam, the debate over ousting Hussein in the absence of the sort of international crisis initiated by his 1990 invasion of Kuwait has been waged in the media by anonymous security establishment insiders. But Wednesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Iraq will force at least some of the discussion out into the open — even though the Bush administration has declined to participate.

Hawks vs. Doves

The administration's to-do list is immense. Unlike Gulf War I, there's no sense of international crisis: Saddam hasn't invaded or threatened any of his neighbors, let alone lashed out at the U.S. Efforts to link Saddam to the September 11 attacks have failed to pan out, and so the advocates of military action are building their case around his alleged possession of deadly chemical and biological weapons. The hawks' argument is that the events of 9/11 underscore the need for a preemptive strike — if the U.S. tolerates the possession of such weapons by rogue regimes, they will ultimately be shared with terrorists and be used on U.S. cities. Led by civilian Pentagon officials such as Richard Perle, the hawks argue that the U.S. has no choice but to pick a fight, because it can't afford to wait for an enemy with WMD capability to throw the first punch.

The skeptics, whose number are said to include many uniformed military personnel and State Department and CIA officials are not convinced. Saddam is hemmed in, they say, and as unpalatable as his continued rule in Baghdad may be, any threat he represents is contained by current military deployments. Getting rid of Saddam is desirable goal, they argue, but that doesn't mean it justifies the geopolitical risk and investment of massive U.S. military resources in a deployment that could last many years. The balance of risk against reward is the focus of this week's Senate hearing.

The Scenarios

The word "leak" is insufficient to describe the gushing torrent of "informed" speculation over U.S. war plans filling the world's front pages. Peppered with phrases like "those in a position to know," these stories all insist that there's no longer any question of whether the U.S. will go to war on Iraq; only of how and when. This could simply be a case of "if you spin it, they will come" on the part of the hawks. A common thread to these stories is the idea that the U.S. is ready to go all the way to Baghdad alone. That could simply be an attempt to ramp up the psychological pressure on Baghdad in the hope that it will produce a coup, or else to disguise U.S. war plans.

Whatever their intention, the "leaks" have created a climate in which an Iraq war has become something of an inevitability. The impression of Bush administration resolve — despite repeated insistence that the President has taken no decisions yet — could cow congressional fence-sitters and even Saddam's reluctant neighbors to make common cause with Washington. Despite their loud objections to military action, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran have a huge incentive to influence the nature of any post-Saddam regime. But they're issuing increasingly shrill warnings against a U.S. attack while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains dangerously volatile. Jordan's King Abdullah, en route to Washington on Tuesday, called the idea of attacking Iraq under present circumstances "ludicrous." Although they may have convinced themselves that ousting Saddam would allow the U.S. to reorder the Middle East on its own terms, the Bush team's hawks may yet find themselves compelled to reconsider their reluctance to cross swords with Ariel Sharon.

How we Might Fight

While the leaks concur on the inevitability of war, they offer widely divergent scenarios for how such a war might be conducted. These function to reinforce arguments for and against the war by either minimizing or maximizing the potential cost and risk to the U.S. They can be broadly categorized as follows:

  • The "Afghan Model," involving massive air power directed by small numbers of U.S. special forces on the ground, operating in concert with indigenous rebel forces in an assault that would prompt massive defections from Saddam's army and force the quick collapse of his regime;

  • The "October Surprise," in which a combined U.S.-British force numbering no more than 50,000 strikes months before any action is anticipated, seizing Baghdad and eliminating Saddam and his regime's command-and-control capability, forcing its collapse before Saddam's weapons of mass destruction can be brought into play;

  • "Desert Storm II," in which the U.S. deploys overwhelming force — in the form of 250,000 troops — to invade Iraq from Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait.

    Each approach carries advantages and dangers. The attraction of the "Afghan model," long championed by many hawks, is that it offers the U.S. a low-cost schema to oust Saddam. But skeptics doubt that Saddam's regime will collapse that easily, or that it will be significantly troubled by the strategically insignificant opposition forces. Like the "Afghan model," the "October surprise" can be implemented relatively quickly and has the advantage of a first-round knockout — it doesn't seriously test the political-military stamina of the U.S. war effort. Skeptics foresee massive loss of life on both sides (and among Iraqi civilians) in a battle for Baghdad's streets. Indeed, they warn, Saddam's own battle plan will be precisely to draw American ground forces into Iraq's cities rather than face them out on the plains where U.S. air power would decide the outcome. Civilian casualties would inflame the already antagonistic Muslim world against America, and also risk thousands of American lives in messy street battles.

    The strongest argument in favor of the "Desert Storm II" scenario is that the U.S. can't afford the political consequences of failure, or even of a stalled offensive. Hawks say it fails to take sufficient advantage of U.S. technological advantage, and that the slow buildup of forces that would delay action at least until next spring gives Saddam time to maneuver to avoid attack. But precisely because there's consensus over the inadmissibility of failure, a "Desert Storm II" scale force is likely to be assembled even if only to allow a seamless transition to Plan B if either of the other approaches is attempted and fails.

    The Dangers of Victory

    Beating Saddam, of course, is only half the problem. A considerable portion of the Senate discussion may focus on how America might manage the consequences of such a victory. One of the major reasons the U.S. held back from marching on Baghdad during the first Gulf War was the belief that Saddam remained a bulwark of regional stability. Iraq had functioned as a strategic counterweight to Iran during the 1980s, which was why it won support from both the U.S. and the Saudis in its gruesome war with Tehran. < P> Iraq's ethnic makeup raises fears that the state itself could be dismembered, destabilizing the regional balance of power: The members of Saddam's regime are largely drawn from the country's 15 percent Sunni Muslim minority. Sixty percent of the population are Shiite Muslims, and the largest opposition group among them is allied with Tehran. To the north, secessionist-minded Kurds make up a further 20 percent of the population. Their aspirations diametrically opposed to the interests of Turkey, which fears it's own Kurdish minority across the border would try to join the Iraqi Kurds in a new state.

    Besides the deep ethnic cleavages and strong, competing regional interests in Iraq's future, existing Iraqi opposition groups remain fractious — a number of key leaders have been invited to Washington next week in search of some agreement over a post-Saddam scenario. Right now there is no U.S.-friendly Iraqi leader who the U.S. could simply install in Baghdad after Saddam's ouster, and there's considerable fear on Capitol Hill (and in the Pentagon) that ousting Saddam could force the U.S. into a long-term occupation of an Arab country.

    The War at Home

    If he'd asked the country for a mandate to go to war with Iraq a week after 9/11, President Bush would likely have received a blank check. But almost a year later, the Afghanistan-phase of the war on terrorism is not yet over — if anything, appears to be presenting increasingly complex nation-building challenges. And at home, the economy rather than terrorism appears to be the more palpable source of insecurity for most Americans, and that shift has translated into softening poll numbers for the Bush administration and the GOP. Unease on both sides of the congressional aisle over initiating a war that could cost thousands of American lives and tens of billions of dollars and potentially jeopardize the position of the U.S. and its closest allies in the Arab world may give the President's political handlers pause. Hawks will argue that he has before him an historic opportunity to remake the politics of the entire Middle East on terms favorable to Washington; skeptics will warn that he could be initiating an epic quagmire that will destroy his presidency and commit the U.S. to a messy, even ruinous colonial mission.

    There is also a credibility issue at stake. Domestically and internationally, the Bush administration has unambiguously signaled its determination to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. And the expectations thus created increase the pressure to deliver. Moreover, the deeper objective of preemptively going to war for no other reason than a rogue regime's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is to send a message to all such regimes — that the U.S. will not tolerate challenges in the form of terrorism or WMD. But whether or not America is ready to assume the risks to fight a preemptive war against Saddam Hussein remains an open question.