Theater Of War

11 minute read
Michael Duffy/Washington

How do you take a country to war? If you’re Saddam Hussein, you just call out the Republican Guard, invade your neighbor and let the consequences be damned, the way you did 12 years ago this month. But if you’re the President of the United States, you have to run the high hurdles. You have to talk to Congress. You have to listen to your generals. You had better measure the ability of your economy–especially if it’s feeling weak–to go the distance. Above all, you have to get approval from your people, who might think you have enough on your plate already.

One man runs an iron dictatorship; the other has to wrestle with a real democracy. Which is as good an explanation as you’ll find to explain why, even as the noise level on Iraq rose last week, the signals from the Bush White House quietly flickered from green to yellow. A senior Administration official informed a key lawmaker that Congress should not expect U.S. action before the November elections. Another pushed the timetable into 2003. “No decisions are going to be made on Iraq for the foreseeable future,” this official told TIME. “It slips until next year.” And intimates of the Bush team concede that the Republican party’s mood on Iraq has been shifting under Bush’s feet.

The President, whose near obsession with extinguishing Saddam remains strong, was giving nothing away. Yet even he sounded slightly more circumspect than usual last week. Asked about Iraq in an Oval Office meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Bush paused for a long time and then said, “Saddam Hussein is a man who poisons his own people, who threatens his neighbors, who develops weapons of mass destruction. And I’ll assure His Majesty, like I have in the past, we’re looking at all options, the use of all tools. I’m a patient man. But I haven’t changed my opinion since the last time he was in the Oval Office.” Translation: “I’ve changed my timing but not my goals.” King Abdullah jumped in with his own interpretation: “All I’d like to say is that what I’ve found from Day One with the President is this: he understands the bigger picture.”

Those were remarkably diplomatic words from a key foreign ally who recently called invading Iraq “a terrible idea.” And Jordan’s worried King is hardly the only voice of caution. While just about everyone at home and abroad agrees the world would be better off without Saddam, a lot of folks want to make sure the hard questions are answered up front about when and how the U.S. could successfully attack and what will happen when the shooting stops.

That bigger picture has become impossible to ignore. Bush’s timetable is being revised for him by an economy that keeps sputtering, fresh violence in the other troubled quarter of the Middle East, where Palestinian bombers claimed five Americans along with Israeli lives, and new questions about his strategy from Capitol Hill. The pause also came as the Administration’s bitterly divided camps on Iraq–one pragmatic, the other jihadist–squared off in another round of the battle they have been waging for weeks via the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Internal catfights are not the way this Administration prefers to make decisions on national security affairs. The Bush team is capable of working the levers behind the scenes, maneuvering in close secrecy, then springing a plan on the public. Tight lips, perfect timing and total unity are prized above all. But none of those usual habits has controlled its handling of Iraq.

The Administration has instead been engaged in a remarkable and unsettling war game with itself. In one camp is Secretary of State Colin Powell and his diplomats at the State Department, who believe a more aggressive containment of Saddam must be tried before resorting to war. Derided as dewy-eyed optimists by their rivals, this group believes that worldwide opinion of the U.S. is so negative these days that Bush cannot attack Saddam without some clear provocation. Pressing diplomacy to the edge might at least provide that.

The Powell camp also worries that war with Iraq would destabilize the entire Islamic crescent from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas and that a post-Saddam Iraq might devolve into neighbor-rattling chaos. To make sure the hotheads consider every complication and consequence, Powell has forged an informal alliance with powerful old pals in uniform at the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are, like him, Vietnam-era generals who believe that regardless of whether an invasion is a good idea (and most doubt that it is), any military action must follow the old Powell doctrine: overwhelming in size and strength.

On the other side stand the Pentagon civilians, guys in ties who came into office ready to roll. They are convinced containment has not worked and that America’s allies will never come aboard even after new U.N. inspections of Saddam’s secret weapons caches–which Iraq said last week it was prepared to consider–inevitably fail. Deemed impractical “theologians” by the Powell camp, this faction is almost unconditionally pro-Israel and regards Saddam, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the more urgent regional and global threat.

The Pentagon civilians also think Saddam can be taken down much more quickly–and with fewer troops and fewer casualties–than the generals have led Bush to believe. Because these advocates contend the U.S. faces such danger from Saddam’s swelling arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that it will have to destroy Saddam sooner or later, they say it’s better to get it over with sooner. This camp is led in public by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and his fiercely gung ho deputy Paul Wolfowitz. But most longtime Bush hands agree that its vital spiritual leader is the backroom Vice President Dick Cheney, who gives this camp constant access to Bush’s ear.

Most of the leaks in recent weeks–all those stories spelling out yet another “secret” invasion plan–have been intended, depending on which camp was involved, to slow or speed the march toward war, or humiliate the other camp in the process. Yet even when a leak is meant to pump up public opposition, the cumulative effect of the theatrics may be the opposite, conditioning the nation to assume some kind of war is inevitable.

But the jockeying has had the virtue of airing a host of difficult-to-answer questions. Over at the Pentagon, the various services each have problems with a near term strike. The Air Force is not confident its flight wings can mount several months of globe-spanning combat–especially if it can’t count on staging bases close to Iraq. The Navy fears it will need most of its carriers to fight Iraq, leaving other oceans unpatrolled. (Rumsfeld shocked the service by removing planes from carriers and using the ships as bases to launch special forces into Afghanistan.) The Army is the most wary of all. Its troops are already stretched across the globe in an assortment of open-ended commitments and as many as two divisions might need to stay on for years when the shooting stops to help the country rebuild.

Those kinds of objections explain why the war party is looking for a silver-bullet strategy–a lucky first strike on Saddam, say, or a manufactured coup by Iraqi dissidents–that would forestall an old-fashioned deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops and tanks. But almost no one in uniform thinks such dream schemes will work. One defense official puts it this way: “There’s nobody in the Joint Chiefs who doesn’t want Saddam gone yesterday. But no matter how much you want to do the silver bullet strike, you need a Plan B. And all the Plan Bs are uninspired, conventional warfare things. And that means more time, more money, more buildup and less surprise.”

And, added this official: “The longer it takes, the more you rankle the people in the region and the more you put the security of other states at risk. This is less about how swiftly we can isolate Baghdad and more about how we will reap what we sow.”

Surprisingly, neither Bush nor Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Adviser, seems capable of closing down the public war gaming. That may be because the leaks are the work of low- and mid-level officials who, as one Bush aide puts it, “feel left out of the action.” More likely, the White House has underestimated the depth of opposition to its single-minded focus on Iraq. If nothing else, Bush and Rice may feel that the flood of war plans helps scare Saddam into lying low. “They may think,” said an old diplomatic hand, “that signaling is important.”

That may be, but the signals are also scaring people at home and overseas who don’t share Bush’s obsession with Baghdad. That partly explains why even though the President insists he has made no decisions on Iraq, others are plunging ahead with the debate. Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden held two days of hearings last week in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in search of answers about the urgency of the Iraqi threat and what kind of action is needed. Biden is moderately hawkish on the issue and has signaled to Bush that he will back him against Saddam if the conditions are right. The Senator wants to make sure Bush consults with Congress and gets a formal go-ahead before the jets scramble–just as Bush’s father did for Gulf War I.

Democrats hope debate will at a minimum stretch out the timetable for war and, if Congress does decide to send in the Marines, ensure the public is with them. But Biden’s hearings served a partisan political purpose as well: they gave all sides a chance to gauge the position of the one Republican in Washington who can still stop a foreign-policy freight train. Senator Richard Lugar, the five-term Hoosier, is the pivotal G.O.P. voice in the Senate on foreign affairs; where he goes, the balance of the Senate usually follows. Lugar has long championed Saddam’s downfall, but his questions last week suggested he now fears, as Bush’s father once did, that toppling Saddam could lead to even greater instability in the region. “The thing I worry about at the end of the day,” said Lugar, “is not that Saddam would fall, but…that there aren’t people in Iraq that may be prepared for democracy as we know it. Suggestions are, in fact, [that] liberal democracy might even lead to more terrorists being spawned out of the process.” He added, “I think we need much more concentrated thinking.”

Doubts from Lugar, even if they are later allayed, signaled that mainstream Republicans are not yet ready to start singing Over There. “There has been a change in the ambient temperature in the party,” said a longtime Bush foreign policy aide. “Bush may not sense it strategically, but he senses it politically.”

So, for now, the planning continues. Central Command boss Tommy Franks, who has met with Bush more than 12 times this year, is expected in Washington this week for more meetings. A top defense official told TIME last week that none of the many scenarios leaked to the newspapers will resemble the plan eventually presented to Bush: “People don’t want to accept this, but everything about it is going to be different. It won’t be like Afghanistan, and it won’t be like the Persian Gulf.”

But Democratic Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, a West Point grad who spent 14 years in active duty, said the “palpable tension” between the two camps is growing, not fading. “All along, there has been this division within the Administration between those who see Iraq as something that has to be done regardless of the costs and those who ask, ‘What are the costs?’ It’s almost schizophrenic, and Bush is caught in the middle.”

But don’t count Bush out on this one. He first called for “regime change” in Iraq in the 2000 campaign. He did not visibly budge from that goal last week: it’s one of those vows that becomes harder to retract every time he repeats it. Yet with so many stars in motion, Bush has little choice but to slow down and start organizing the coalition against Saddam, inside his own Administration first of all.

–With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington

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