WASHINGTON -- The signal has spread through the Pentagon: on to Baghdad to get rid of Saddam Hussein, probably in September when the weather should be fine and the U.S. high-tech arsenal will be replenished. That's what Defense Department policymakers plan, but their cheers are balanced by apprehension among civilian and military career officials.
One military thinker, considered one of the Pentagon's best brains, put it this way: "The risk of going through with this scares the (expletive) out of me. That's why a lot of us are rooting for Colin Powell to settle this somehow." The secretary of state's preference for negotiated settlements instead of war upsets the Bush administration's hard-liners, but he has a following of Pentagon officials looking for an antidote to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
None of these worried warriors is soft on Saddam. They see a war against Iraq as a very complicated military operation for American forces acting on their own, without benefit of allies. Most alarming is a possible chain reaction, a fear shared by thoughtful members of Congress. The worst-case scenario would trigger a Middle East war, with the Arab world aligned against a nuclear-armed Israel.
From the moment terrorists attacked America Sept. 11, Powell's efforts to build a global alliance have come under fire from hard-liners, inside and outside government, who are sympathetic to Israel's Sharon government. They even disdained targeting Afghanistan, instead urging a quick strike against Iraq. That policy of necessity would isolate America, allied only with Israel and maybe Britain.
More than seven months of the war against terrorism has only widened differences inside the administration, particularly since Sharon launched his military offensive into the Palestinian territories. The president has barely mentioned Iraq by name, but his speech at the Virginia Military Institute on April 17 returned to a theme absent from his remarks since the heightened Israeli-Palestinian crisis. He declared that "a small number of outlaw regimes" are developing weapons of mass destruction, adding that "these regimes constitute an axis of evil, and the world must confront them."
Advocates of quick action predict early victory with the people of Iraq rising against the tyrant and generating satisfaction elsewhere in the Arab world -- a manifestation of the Kosovo syndrome. Just as the Vietnam syndrome supposed bloody defeat for any U.S. intervention, the Kosovo syndrome assumes continuing bloodless victories. The latter is not the prevailing view at the Pentagon.
When I interviewed Gen. Richard Myers over CNN on April 5, the Joint Chiefs chairman rejected the speculation by advocates of intervention that a new war in Iraq would be a "cakewalk" (the word used by Kenneth Adelman, a national security expert close to the Bush administration). "You just can't overlay Afghanistan ... onto Iraq," said Myers, "and I would never refer to it as a cakewalk."
Pentagon sources talk about needing some 100,000 U.S.
troops (four Army divisions and one Marine division). Insertion of that force without the help of Arab neighbors is a daunting operational exercise.
One European military expert who recently visited Washington could not envision a solution until he was told by U.S. sources that airborne troops would seize the Iraqi oil fields, with the resulting loss of revenue triggering a popular revolt. But any scenario requires the solution of political puzzles, bringing in the Kurds and neighboring Turkey.
Even assuming those problems are solved, deeper worries are voiced at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Would an Iraq under attack repeat its 1991 missile launching against Israel? Would Israel retaliate, as it did not in 1991, perhaps this time with nuclear weapons? Would this lead to an area-wide war? Would it align the U.S. and Israel against the Arab world?
Any risks are sustainable if Saddam Hussein represents not merely a noxious dictator but a genuine danger to U.S. security. U.S. intelligence rejects the frightening report brought to Washington by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Iraqi capability to attack this country with an atomic bomb contained in a suitcase. The threat of Baghdad lies in the future, which may justify reliance on Colin Powell's diplomacy if George W. Bush has not already set the date for combat.