Iraq: The GOP War With Itself

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Bush campaigned in 2000 with GOP strategic 'wise men,' who now differ on Iraq

Looking to answer critics of his lack of foreign policy experience as he ran for president in the spring of 2000, George W. Bush rolled out his wise men. Doesn't matter, said Bush. I don't have to know everything; elect me, and I'll call on all the best people for advice: Heavy hitters like Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. But on the question of whether to invade Iraq, which may yet come to define the second Bush presidency, the foreign policy wise men of the CEO president's own party have been in sharp (and very public) disagreement.

The President appeared to apply the brakes Wednesday, following a meeting at his ranch with his national security team. He emphasized that he was in no rush to reach a decision on Iraq, his willingness to consider a range of non-military options and his intention to consult with allies over how to pursue his goal of ousting Saddam Hussein's regime. Bush's tone appeared to tilt towards the more cautious approach favored by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Republican foreign policy old guard — the hawks, after all, had been pressing the urgency of immediate U.S. military action, alone if necessary.

President Bush's latest comments on Iraq follow a week of strong and public warnings by GOP strategic thinkers against a hasty march on Iraq. Former Reagan and Bush 1 aide Lawrence Eagleburger said the U.S. had no grounds to take out Saddam unless Baghdad was about to attack America or its allies. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Gulf War hero General Norman Schwarzkopf recognized the importance of ousting Saddam, but cautioned against the U.S. acting alone. The harshest warning of all came from former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, still a close associate of the President's father, who warned that the potentially catastrophic consequences outweighed any good that an invasion could achieve.

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By last Saturday, a clearly piqued President Bush called a halt to the torrent of Republican complaints, and said he'd make up his own mind based on "the latest intelligence." The intelligence, according to the more hawkish elements, points to a dangerous link between Saddam and al Qaeda. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has suggested that leaders of Bin Laden's group may be hiding out in Iraq. But other officials specified that intelligence had found that "second-tier" al-Qaeda leaders had joined up with an Islamist militia in the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq, beyond Baghdad's direct control — although possibly under its influence.

The case against Saddam

No Republicans — or Democrats, for that matter — have questioned the administration's moral case for seeking Saddam Hussein's ouster, articulated last week by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in a BBC interview. But Republican critics warn that pursuing that particular moral objective by going to war under present circumstances may isolate the U.S. from its natural allies and undermine support for its war on terrorism. And they're concerned that the administration's rhetoric on Iraq has outstripped its ability to deliver on the tough talk.

The tough talk now demands action, argues arch-hawk Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon think tank. He responded to Scowcroft's critique by warning, "The failure to take on Saddam after what the president [has] said would produce such a collapse of confidence in the president that it would set back the war on terrorism."

Rather than accelerating the action to catch up with the rhetoric, though, Scowcroft and others would prefer to tone down the rhetoric. Eagleburger suggested last week that Perle and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz were maneuvering to commit the administration to attack Iraq simply to finish what was started in the Gulf War. But Perle and Wolfowitz are not mere loose cannons; they are seen in Washington as the spokesmen of the hawkish element in the Bush administration whose number is thought to include Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney.

A brief history of Iraq attack

The campaign by Perle, Wolfowitz and others to pursue Saddam's ouster predates both September 11 and even the Bush White House. As early as five years ago, the pair became increasingly critical of what they see as a mistake by the first Bush administration in failing to destroy Saddam's regime during the Gulf War. They urged that the U.S. put its own muscle behind a policy of regime change in Baghdad. September 11 made the mainstream more receptive to a position previously confined to conservative think tanks — America had been alerted to its own vulnerability, and Perle, Wolfowitz and others warned that leaving Saddam's regime in place increased the likelihood of a chemical or biological attack on these shores.

Immediately following September 11, the Defense Policy Board convened a two-day seminar at which it was generally agreed that removing Saddam should be one of the objectives of the U.S. war on terrorism, even in the absence of any link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The point was underscored, on September 20 in an open letter to President Bush by Perle and a number of prominent conservatives (many of them Defense Policy Board members). "Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [September 11] attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," they wrote. "Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism."

But the administration, at the urging of Powell and others, prioritized building a broad anti-terror coalition and the Iraq issue was relegated to the backburner — until the President's "axis of evil" speech earlier this year. That was the cue for a new round of speculation over a U.S. invasion, which reached fever pitch this summer as leaked war plans filled the headlines — a reflection of fierce bureaucratic infighting over the wisdom of going to war.

Getting a grip

For a President known to prize loyalty above most else, last week's internecine bloodletting among senior Republicans was more than a little embarrassing since it implied an absence of leadership on the issue from the White House. But despite the popular misperception that the Iraq obsession is Bush family business, the loudest warnings against war last week came from Scowcroft, an impeccably faithful Bush family insider.

The Republican wise men essentially urged President Bush to get a grip on his administration's public stance on Iraq. The reason: In the absence of clear signals from the White House, hawkish rhetoric and media leaks were provoking panic among U.S. allies. Although the statements by senior Republican skeptics vary, the common theme is that the administration has yet to make a strategic case for a military campaign to remove Saddam, and to assemble the appropriate coalition. President Bush's comments on Wednesday suggest he's heard their complaints.