Military action against Iraq is not imminent, administration officials insist. But at the same time, they are strongly hinting that it may be inevitable. Even the administration's arch dove, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate Budget Committee hearing this week that the President was committed to achieving a "regime change" in Baghdad, and that direct military action was among the options under consideration. The administration's more bellicose tone is designed to set the stage for Vice President Dick Cheney's tour of the Middle East and Gulf region in mid-March to rally support for action against Saddam. That's going to be a tough sell: Although all of Iraq's neighbors would be happy to see the strongman dispatched to history's garbage pail, their concerns that a war would unleash tremendous instability throughout the region have led them to favor simply containing his regime.
The Bush team believes Iraq's neighbors are skeptical because of Washington's own hesitancy in dealing with Saddam over the past decade. All that is needed to bring them aboard, the argument goes, is a cast-iron commitment to finish off the regime in Baghdad, and a battle plan for a quick and decisive victory. The administration hopes to provide Cheney with both before he flies out. The commitment part is there. But the battle plan will be more difficult. Saddam's Iraq is a tougher nut to crack than Taliban-held Afghanistan; Hussein still has a large army and a considerable amount of military hardware at his disposal, one that possibly includes chemical and biological capability. The absence of an obvious Northern Alliance equivalent to do America's infantry work by proxy means U.S. troops would have to fight difficult battles on the ground themselves. And even if he can convince skeptical allies that Saddam can be quickly and decisively beaten, Cheney will have to show there's a viable alternative government that could hold Iraq's ethnically diverse society together.
The politics of going to war on Saddam this time around are almost the inverse of Gulf War I back then, the American public and Congress were divided over the wisdom of going to war, and building a broad international coalition helped convince the doubters of the war's legitimacy. Now the domestic consensus in support of President Bush's war on terrorism will be used to browbeat reluctant allies into acquiescence. How do you say "Let's roll" in Arabic?