An increasingly contentious debate is underway within the Bush
administration over how to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with the
civilian leadership pushing for innovative solutions using smaller numbers
of troops and military planners repeatedly responding with more cautious
approaches that would employ far larger forces.
Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are
pushing most forcefully for aggressively confronting Hussein, arguing that
he presents a serious threat and that time is not on the side of the
United States, according to several people involved in the closely held
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet are
asking skeptical questions about a military campaign, especially about the
aftermath of what most in the administration assume would be a fairly
swift victory, according to those taking part in the deliberations.
Much of the senior uniformed military, with the notable exception of
some top Air Force and Marine generals, opposes going to war anytime soon,
a stance that is provoking frustration among civilian officials in the
Pentagon and in the White House. In addition, some suspect that Powell's
stance has produced an unusual alliance between the State Department and
the uniformed side of the Pentagon, elements of the government that more
often seem to oppose each other in foreign policy debates.
What is not being debated, officials said, is the ultimate goal of
removing Hussein from power, an outcome that President Bush has repeatedly
said he is determined to pursue. But how to do that still has not been
decided. Officials stressed that the administration is still early in the
process of discussing a variety of approaches to attacking Iraq and that
no formal plan has been put before the president.
Some top military officials argue that the policy of aggressive
containment -- through "no-fly" zones, a naval enforcement of sanctions
and the nearby presence of 20,000 U.S. military personnel -- has kept
Hussein from becoming an immediate threat. Bush has also approved a covert
operation to try to dislodge Hussein from power, working in part with
Iraqi opposition groups. The questions being debated now, officials said,
are whether to move against Hussein with overt military action and, if so,
when and how.
The lack of answers to those questions is producing new stresses within
the administration, some defense experts said. Two people involved in the
debate -- one inside the Pentagon, one outside it -- said Cheney and
others at the White House are growing concerned that the Joint Chiefs of
Staff and other military leaders have fought Rumsfeld and other civilian
hawks to a standstill. "I'm picking up a concern that people at the top of
the Pentagon are overwhelmed," said one Republican foreign policy
He and others interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition
that their names not be used, citing an atmosphere in which information
about planning on Iraq is being tightly held in the administration,
especially at the Pentagon.
Making his case, Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee
yesterday that the situation with Hussein will not improve. "Over time,
the economic sanctions weaken, the diplomatic effort seems to get a little
tired, the progress that he's been able to make in proliferating the
terrorist states all across the globe is a serious one," he said.
Rumsfeld said there are "differing views about what one ought to do"
but that the relationship between the top civilian and military leaders at
the Pentagon is close. "The discussions that take place, the process
that's been established, have been working as well as I have ever seen,"
There are deep differences of opinion about how the debate is likely to
end, even among people intimately involved in the process, officials said.
Some think the military's concerns will put the brakes on those advocating
a direct confrontation with Hussein, while others say the president has
been so clear about his determination to remove the Iraqi president from
power that he cannot back down.
One advocate of confronting Hussein said he worries that the determined
opposition of senior military leaders ultimately will dissuade Bush. "You
can't force things onto people who don't want to do it, and the three- and
four-star Army generals don't want to do it," he said. "I think this will
go back and forth, and back and forth, until it's time for Bush to run for
But several others predicted that the military's objections will be
overridden. "I'm absolutely convinced the president will settle on a war
plan that brings about regime change," the GOP foreign policy specialist
Ultimately, noted a senior administration official, "the military has
limited influence in this administration."
Some civilians in the debate worry that military planners consistently
call for more troops in every plan because they lack an appreciation of
how technological advances have improved the military's offensive
capabilities since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. "The issue is, our
capability to do severe damage to the Iraqis is very different today than
it was 10 years ago," said Dennis Bovin, a member of the Defense Science
Board and other Pentagon advisory groups. "We have a lot more options
available than ever before."
In the debate, civilians have urged military planners to consider
approaches radically different from the half-million-strong force that the
United States deployed against Iraq during the Gulf War. The current
favorite of those backing a smaller, faster approach is a lightning strike
involving narrowly focused airstrikes combined with a sprint of armored
vehicles from Kuwait to Baghdad. The thinking is that such a movement of
just a few days would not permit Hussein to hide his forces in cities or
to trundle his artillery pieces to the northern bank of the Euphrates and
then to fire shells, possibly including chemical weapons, at U.S. forces
trying to cross that broad river.
In addition, several other "bolt from the blue" approaches are being
discussed behind closed doors and studied in war games. "There are a lot
of out-of-the-box options, very few of which have gotten into the public
eye," said one Pentagon consultant. The Special Operations Command in
particular has suggested some "tactically innovative" approaches that
combine "precision strike and information dominance," said a Pentagon
Yet no matter how innovative the suggestions, the planners at Central
Command seem to weigh them down with conventional thinking that would
prolong both the preparations for any attack and the war itself, according
to people involved in the process. That command, the U.S. military
headquarters for the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, is
headed by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who has a reputation in the Pentagon
of being extremely cautious.
"They've had these ideas for months, but they keep on going back to
Franks with them, and he says, 'No, no, you need three heavy divisions and
an air assault division' " -- that is, a backup force of about 60,000
troops -- as insurance in case a smaller attack falters, one defense
official said. The overall force considered in one plan earlier this
summer would have involved around 100,000 troops, he said.
In follow-up meetings, pointed questioning by senior civilian officials
cut the overall number of the notional attack force to 68,000, the
official added. Then, he said, "two weeks later, the Army has pushed it
back up to 120,000."
The apparent impasse is causing extreme frustration with Franks and
with the Army among some administration officials.
At a July 10 meeting of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory
group, one of the subjects discussed was how to overcome the military
reluctance to plan innovatively for an attack on Iraq. "What was discussed
was the problem with the services," said one defense expert who
participated in the meeting. His conclusion: "You have to have a few heads
roll, especially in the Army."
People involved in the planning said the reason so many different plans
and variations have surfaced -- from a "Gulf War Lite" force involving
250,000 troops to an "Afghan War Redux" that combines a relative handful
of Special Forces units, airstrikes and Iraqi rebels -- is that wildly
different assumptions are being made about the nature of the war.
"There's obviously a lot going on about how to do this," said one
senior administration official. "There's no right way or wrong way. It's
difficult because you don't know which countries you can count on or what
the consequences in the region would be."
The first major variable is the geopolitical context in which the
attack would occur. Some military planners believe that the U.S. military
ultimately would be able to use bases in nearly every country in the area,
except Iran and Syria. Others predict that the United States would be far
The second area has to do with the degree of military risk. There are
major disagreements, officials said, especially about whether the Iraqi
military as a whole would fight or just the Republican Guard, Hussein's
most elite and loyal force.
Some of those advocating a smaller, faster attack think that it would
be a mistake to target the entire Iraqi military, which they believe has
elements that would either decline to fight or even join the U.S. side.
"If the Republican Guards are the only viable fighting force, and the
regular Iraqi army won't perform, you could really do a lot of the
necessary damage from the air," said a Pentagon adviser involved in the
Finally, there is an extraordinary range of opinion about what burden
the U.S. military and government would be required to carry in Iraq after
a victory. How long would U.S. troops have to stay, how many would be
needed and whether they would be joined by peacekeepers from other
countries are all being debated. Most important, perhaps, is the question
of whether the Iraqi people would welcome the arrival of U.S. forces -- or
All those calculations are complicated by the fact that the nature of
the war -- its scope, duration and intensity -- will help shape the mood
of postwar Iraq.
"Downing's opposition was to a long, destructive campaign from the
ground and air that would hurt the post-campaign environment," said one
military planner, referring to retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, who
recently left a White House position, some say because of his unhappiness
with the planning for Iraq.