Why Bush Is in No Hurry on Iraq

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Saddam's propaganda works the Palestinian connection

President Bush may have reiterated his desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but that doesn't mean the U.S. is planning to invade Iraq any time soon. "It's the stated policy of this government to have a regime change," he told reporters Monday. "And we'll use all tools at our disposal to do so." Bush said he was reviewing all options, but added that "I'm a patient person."

Despite his tough talk on Saddam, Bush gave no reason to believe a U.S. attack is imminent. After all, regime change in Baghdad has been Washington's stated policy since 1997, and despite media reports of the existence of a hypothetical U.S. battle plan for Iraq, the President chose to emphasize his patience and the multiplicity of options available to him.

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Despite September 11, the Afghan campaign and the "axis of evil" speech, it's not hard to see why there's no rush to war with Iraq. While no significant constituency at home or abroad is comfortable accepting Saddam Hussein's continued brutal reign, there are few takers for launching a war in order to oust him. That's not only because victory may be neither cheap nor easy, but also because some of the stakeholders fear that victory itself may create a situation that's even less tolerable and stable than the present one.

Washington hawks have pressed for the application of Afghanistan-style tactics in Iraq — they believe that massive air power in combination with mobile special forces units and proxy infantry on the ground could quickly force the internal collapse of Saddam's regime, just as it put the Taliban to flight. But there's a big difference between taking on Iraq's large, well-equipped and relatively modern army defending its own towns and cities and fighting the Taliban's ragged riflemen on their Toyota pickups. Nor is there a battle-tested Northern Alliance equivalent already in the field able to take and hold territory from Saddam's forces. And the Taliban had no access to chemical or biological weapons. Whatever their differences over tactics, Washington's factions agree that once the U.S. commits to battle in Iraq, it simply can't afford to fail. That means the U.S. would likely have to commit up to 250,000 U.S. troops to the fight.

Even domestically, an operation of that scale and risk may be a tough sell. A recent survey of congressional leaders found legislators on both sides of the aisle equivocal over picking a fight with Iraq, citing reasons ranging from the military's current commitments to regional security priorities. Selling such a war at home isn't made any easier by the fact that many of Iraq's neighbors are also the most vociferous opponents of military action.

Jordan, for example, loudly rejected is designated role as a premier staging ground for a ground invasion. "We refuse to be a launching pad or arena for any act against our brotherly state Iraq or to use our soil and airspace to attain this objective,'' said Jordan's Information Minister Mohammad al-Adwan Tuesday. That sentiment has been echoed by the Saudis, Kuwaitis and anti-Saddam Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq. If they do participate, the Kurds minimum demand is autonomy within a new Iraqi federation. But domestic secessionist concerns make Turkey, another key staging area for a U.S. attack, implacably hostile to anything resembling a Kurdish political entity on its borders.

The Turks are also concerned about new military engagements while Afghanistan remains unfinished business — hardly surprising, since they're shouldering the leading peacekeeping role there, amid signs that the peace may be unraveling. Far from being able to withdraw and move on to the next challenge, current indications are that stabilizing Afghanistan may require greater investment of Western troops than has been the case until now.

Peacekeeping in Iraq could be even tougher. Like Afghanistan, Iraq is divided along ethnic and tribal lines, and fear of its potential breakup as a state was one reason that restrained the first Bush administration from going all the way in 1991. Like Afghanistan, its internal divisions are of direct national security concern to its neighbors, particularly Turkey and Iran. And its Arab neighbors to the west are reluctant to see any weakening in the power of a state long regarded as the Arab world's bulwark against the geopolitical ambitions of Iran's revolutionary Shiites. But unlike Afghanistan, Iraq is a relatively modern state possessed of a strategically crucial oil industry and considerable nasty weaponry.

Afghanistan isn't the only extraneous concern. The unresolved question of the Palestinians remains a major obstacle to the U.S. finding any Arab support for a new war against Iraq. In its recent positions on the conflict, the Bush administration has essentially given Ariel Sharon carte blanche to do as he pleases in what had once been designated as Palestinian Authority-controlled territory. Despite a three-week lull in suicide bombings, there's little reason to believe Israel's reoccupation of West Bank cities will break the pattern of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Whatever Washington's own priorities, its interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain the benchmark against which Arab public opinion measures U.S. bona fides. And under present circumstances, the regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia may be risking their own overthrow if they now backed a U.S. attack on Iraq.

Those urging an attack on Iraq, however, see it as nothing less than a total remaking of the Middle East's geopolitical equation, rendering moot traditional concerns over the sensibilities of the "Arab street." In this view, according to the New York Times, is that "an Iraq under new governance could become a new Western ally, helping to reduce American dependency on bases in Saudi Arabia, to secure Israel's eastern flank and act as a wedge between Iran and Syria." The idea of a democratic Iraq remaining intact as a single national entity, let alone becoming an overnight ally of the West, is at the very least regarded with some skepticism. And talk of a democratic Arab state "securing Israel's eastern flank" seems more than a little fanciful — those Arab states that have made peace with Israel are anything but democratic, and their citizenry is considerably more hostile than its leaders are to the Jewish State, and to the United States.

The fundamental question facing the Bush administration on Iraq is the extent to which the U.S. is able to go it alone (with support from Britain) on a massive military venture whose risks are multiplied, rather than reduced, by success. Unless the U.S. is willing to assume the imperial commitment of a tough-loving single parent to a brutalized and resentful region, the involvement of allies aboard will be even more crucial to the task of remaking Iraq after Saddam than in the campaign to oust him in the first place. That may be one reason President Bush chose, this week, to emphasize his patience in relation to his commitment to getting rid of Saddam Hussein.