• U.S.

Ready For Action

17 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

On the scorched sands of Saudi Arabia, 180,000 American ground troops wait impatiently, cleaning their weapons, exercising, thinking of D-day. Flashing overhead are the best attack planes of the U.S. Air Force: F-15s, F-16s, radar-evading F-117 Stealth fighters. At sea, U.S. Navy Aegis cruisers train their Tomahawk cruise missiles on Iraqi targets, while aircraft carriers launch and recover squadrons of bombers and interceptors.

Even more muscle is on the way. An additional 100,000 U.S. soldiers have been earmarked for the Persian Gulf. Military commanders in Saudi Arabia say no limit has been placed on the number of troops that might be sent. George Bush says, “We must keep all our options open.”

While the U.S., European and Arab forces arrayed in the gulf are not yet strong enough to mount an overpowering offensive against the 430,000 Iraqi troops in and around Kuwait, Bush clearly counts military force as one of those options. He has pledged to liberate Kuwait and restore its government, which means that if necessary Operation Desert Shield can become Desert Sword. The buildup and the war that may ensue have cast the spotlight on two men who may be the most important policymakers in the Bush Administration: Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Already these Pentagon partners have smoothly directed the biggest U.S. military effort since Vietnam.

Whether this crisis leads to war or to a peaceful outcome, it has fortuitously arrived at a time when the Pentagon is headed by two of the most seasoned and able leaders in years. Cheney’s experience as a Congressman and White House operative and Powell’s as National Security Adviser have made them masters of the political wars in Washington. Each has a unique understanding of what pressures the other is under. The outcome of the gulf confrontation may be determined by the way they carry out their duties.

The pair’s organizational and diplomatic skills have been strikingly evident since the earliest moments of Desert Shield, which began only a few hours after Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 2. Early the next morning, Cheney tucked a top-secret briefing file under his arm and walked to the small, heavily guarded Current Situation Room on the second floor of the Pentagon. Powell was waiting there for him. Amid the maze of projection screens, television monitors and colored telephones, they drafted the advice on military responses Cheney would offer Bush: the U.S. could — and must — defend Saudi Arabia with a rapid infusion of military might.

Cheney’s support for armed intervention was unqualified, though he pointed out to Bush that the U.S. presence in the region at the outset was weak — only a handful of ships in the gulf. Powell backed Cheney with the proviso that an insertion of American forces should be massive and swift, not gradual.

Many in Washington assumed Powell’s insistence on that point was a hangover from the painful escalation of the Vietnam War, where he served two tours, but Powell denies it. “It’s not so much my Vietnam experience as 32 years of military education and training,” he says. “If you are going to commit the armed forces of the U.S. to a military operation that could involve conflict and loss of life, then do it right.”

The biggest short-term obstacle to U.S. intervention was the traditional unwillingness of Saudi Arabia and most of the other Arab states to provide bases or facilities for American forces. To deal with that, Bush picked Cheney, who flew to Saudi Arabia on Aug. 6. There the Defense Secretary negotiated with King Fahd a three-page agreement that opened the door to deployment of U.S. troops and warplanes. Cheney’s pact with the King, though its text is still secret, has been likened to an “instant NATO” treaty by Administration officials.

Moving on to Cairo, Cheney worked with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to orchestrate the Arab League’s response to Iraq’s aggression. That groundwork led to the decision to dispatch Arab army units — including those of Egypt and Syria — to Saudi Arabia. Last month Cheney undertook yet another diplomatic mission to Moscow, where he coordinated gulf policy with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov.

With the political agreements in place, Cheney and Powell pushed the < military deployment with amazing speed. Units from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Saudi Arabia less than 24 hours after they were ordered to move out; the more heavily armed 24th Infantry Division was on its way by ship in a week. Even Cheney is awestruck by the pace and size of the buildup. “It is a truly impressive phenomenon,” he says, “when the President signs off on the deployment, and you give the orders, and boom, within three months there are 180,000 people plus 7 billion lbs. of equipment, hundreds of aircraft, tanks, all that combat power represented in Operation Desert Shield halfway around the world.”

Desert Shield quickly accomplished its first objective: deterring an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia. The initial deployment, while not powerful enough by itself to turn back an Iraqi onslaught, served as an unmistakable sign of U.S. determination to prevent Saddam from making further territorial gains.

Now, however, the U.S. is adding such large amounts of manpower and firepower to the region that the very nature of its mission may change. Once the additional troops recommended by Cheney and Powell arrive and become acclimatized to the desert heat, the U.S. and its allies will for the first time be in a position to go on the offensive against Iraq. The existence of that capability could generate pressure to use it. As a military maxim puts it: You can do anything with a sword except sit on it.

If Bush decides to use the full arsenal of weapons at his disposal, there is little question about the outcome of a clash with Saddam Hussein. The American commander in the gulf, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, said last week that the U.S. could obliterate Iraq. When forces large enough to demonstrate that fact arrive in Saudi Arabia, even Saddam might be convinced — and withdraw from Kuwait. Thus the buildup serves two purposes: preparing for war while hoping to avoid one.

That is the double-edged strategy being pursued by the Pentagon duo, Dick Cheney and Colin (pronounced Cole-in) Powell. Cheney, a brainy conservative from Wyoming, honed his political skills as chief of staff in Gerald Ford’s White House. He was the respected Republican whip in the House of Representatives when Bush tapped him for Defense last year after the unsuccessful battle to confirm former Senator John Tower.

Powell, the New York-born son of Jamaican immigrants, entered the Army via the ROTC program at the City College of New York. He too got a boost from the White House, where he was a fellow in 1972, working for Frank Carlucci, then deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. When Carlucci became National Security Adviser to Ronald Reagan, he named Powell as his deputy. Powell became Reagan’s Security Adviser in 1987 when Carlucci was appointed Secretary of Defense.

Along with these policy-oriented jobs, Powell has served in demanding field assignments from infantry adviser in Vietnam to commander of an Army corps in Germany to chief of all forces in the continental U.S. He winces when anyone calls him a “political general” and claims he is “just a foot soldier.” In fact, no one climbs to the top of the military hierarchy without political instincts, and nominations to the top command are as political as Cabinet appointments. Representative Dave McCurdy says everyone who deals with Powell learns “they don’t come smoother than Colin.”

Though Cheney was advised by the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Crowe, to pick an officer from the Pentagon’s top echelon to be his successor, Cheney passed over 15 more senior generals. He recommended Powell, the first black and, at 52, the youngest officer ever to serve in the post. Powell may be Cheney’s equal as a political insider in Washington; many believe he could become the first African American to be nominated for Vice President by either major party. And while both men have a quick smile and ready wit, they hold the reins tightly inside their own operations.

“We’re very different persons,” says Cheney. “We have very different backgrounds. He is a professional military man, and I’m a professional politician. But it works because we bring different skills to our assignments and it meshes nicely.” Says Powell: “There is no competition. I work for him. He is my boss. I am his adviser. Period.”

In the nation’s military chain of command, Cheney is second only to the President. He is also the manager of the Pentagon’s million-strong civilian component. Powell, who is Cheney’s direct subordinate, runs the uniformed two- thirds (2.1 million on active duty) of the Defense Department. His job is to provide Cheney with the best military advice available from inside the services. He is then charged with delivering the forces necessary to carry out actions ordered by the President.

Until recently, the Chairman of the JCS was little more than a mouthpiece for the lowest common denominator that could be agreed upon by the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. But since the Goldwater-Nichols Reorganization Act of 1986, the Chairman has become superior to the individual service chiefs, with his own staff of 1,600 and enhanced status and authority. “Goldwater-Nichols,” says Lawrence Korb, director of public-policy education at the Brookings Institution, “changed the Pentagon like nothing else in recent memory.”

Powell’s staff members describe him as a freewheeling administrator who encourages open discussion of issues. “There’s no intimidation,” says an aide. But when a decision has to be made, Powell is very much the four-star general officer. Says Senator John McCain of Arizona, a retired Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam: “Powell has a terrific leadership style.”

Although he once advised against intervention in Panama, Powell has earned a reputation as a man not afraid to use force to advance American interests. In the 13 months he has served as America’s top soldier, Powell has steered several important military operations, including providing support for the government of the Philippines against a coup attempt, the invasion of Panama and the rescue of Americans trapped by the civil war in Liberia. After years of reluctant generals and admirals, the White House values Powell as a man who unhesitatingly carries out his mission.

In a right-of-center Republican Administration, Cheney may be the most conservative Cabinet member. As a Congressman, Cheney recalls with some pride, “I never voted against a weapons program.” His only significant misstep since taking over at the Pentagon resulted from his ingrained distrust of the Soviet Union. He once speculated publicly that Gorbachev would not last long in Moscow. He jokes that he keeps a list of 10 actions that will prove that the Soviets have truly changed. Even though some of them — like the unification of Germany — have been fulfilled, the list always stands at 10. “Every time they do one, I add another,” Cheney explains. “It’s like moving the goalposts.”

Even in jest, that kind of talk helps explain why the Pentagon bosses were in big trouble on Capitol Hill until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait rescued them and their budget. Before Iraq attacked its neighbor, Congress was considering very large cuts in defense spending while Cheney was proposing annual reductions of only 2%. Members of Congress were deep in discussions of the peace dividend — money that could be saved from the $160 billion spent each < year to defend Western Europe from the Soviet Union, and diverted to domestic uses.

In the wrangling over deficit reduction this year, most of the participants from both parties assumed at first that the Department of Defense would have to accept major spending cuts. But then came the gulf conflict, and the hoped- for peace dividend began to fade. Budget summiteers made an implicit agreement not to wreak hardship on the military. In the end, the budget resolution set Pentagon spending for fiscal 1991 at $288.3 billion, a reduction of $19 billion from the President’s request.

As Cheney sees it, the current pro-Pentagon mood represents a return to reality. The gulf confrontation, he says, “reminds everyone that even with significantly improved relations between the U.S. and the Soviets, there is still a significant requirement for a U.S. military force in the world.”

During the Reagan years, the justification for new Pentagon programs was the Soviet threat. The eight-year buildup cost $2.4 trillion. Although it was flawed by corruption and expensive mistakes, it also created the world’s best armed forces. The all-volunteer service has brought in some of the sharpest, best-educated troops in Pentagon history. Its arsenal includes M-1 Abrams tanks, high-performance missiles, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and air- superiority fighters.

Ironically, those sophisticated weapons are being aimed at an unexpected kind of foe. With the ebbing of the Soviet menace, Pentagon planners had concentrated on preparing for “low-intensity” wars against lightly armed opponents in remote Third World settings. Instead the first threat to world peace to follow the cold war is presented by a country wielding a million-man army and some of the most advanced weaponry available anywhere.

Iraq’s arsenal includes Soviet tanks, French Mirage fighter planes, Soviet Scud missiles, which can be topped with either explosive or poison-gas warheads, and South African-made artillery pieces with more range and greater accuracy than anything in the U.S. inventory. Says Powell: “It turns out that the kinds of forces we built to deal with the Soviet threat are the kind that have great utility in this crisis, because — guess what? — the Iraqi army is not riding camels. They’re driving Soviet tanks, flying Soviet aircraft.”

There is more to it than that, though. The best of armies must get to the field before it can fight. Where the Pentagon spenders, uniformed and civilian, fell short was in airlift and sealift, the vital cargo ships and planes. Cheney had refused to spend $600 million that Congress handed him specifically to buy fast logistics ships. The Air Force, bored by transport planes, stopped buying sturdy C-141s and giant C-5s and called for the completely new C-17. Six years later, with the price tag near $400 million each, no C-17 has ever flown. For the money invested in its development so far, the country could have bought 70 more C-5A Galaxies.

Result: while the gulf buildup has been extraordinary, the U.S. does not have enough land forces and logistical support to attack confidently the 430,000 troops, 3,500 tanks and 2,200 artillery pieces the Iraqi army has in fortified positions in Kuwait and southern Iraq. In addition to Marines and infantrymen, American forces include 800 tanks and 800 combat planes. According to British military officials, by mid-November the total U.S. and allied force will include 1,600 tanks and 750 heavy artillery pieces. This will not give the allies parity with the Iraqis, let alone the 3-to-l superiority of attacker over defender that is called for in military textbooks. But American generals think they can more than make up for that disadvantage through air superiority: the multinational force will have 1,110 combat planes to 800 for Iraq. U.S. Army officers in Riyadh are confident that Schwarzkopf will get as many troops as he thinks he needs. Says he: “For a military man, you can never have enough.”

Just back from the gulf last week, Powell went to Cheney’s office in the Pentagon to brief him on the need for 100,000 more troops. The two then drove to the White House to report to Bush at a 2 1/2-hour session in the Situation Room. Cheney told reporters the Administration was not yet ready “to say that we’ve put enough forces into the gulf.” Bush endorsed the plan to augment U.S. troop strength, but no announcement of which units will go is expected until Secretary of State James Baker discusses the increase with the Saudi government in Riyadh this week.

It is not yet clear what military options Bush wants to have. Most U.S. strategists put heavy air attacks at the center of their battle scenarios. They would focus first on knocking the Iraqi air force out of the war. Once air superiority is attained, strikes would focus on cutting roads and bridges and destroying military installations. No matter how much faith they place in air power, however, the planners are convinced that ground assaults would have to play a major role in ousting Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

U.S. Central Command headquarters in Saudi Arabia is getting ready. “We wait for someone to tell us what the mission is,” says Brigadier General Stephen Arnold, assistant chief of staff of Centcom. “Then we figure out the best way to accomplish the mission.” Centcom staff officers foresee a shooting war with Iraq as three simultaneous battles. The first would be the great air battle behind the Kuwaiti and Iraqi frontiers. The second would be a combined attack on Iraqi armored units inside Kuwait by A-10 Thunderbolt tank killers, armed helicopters, missiles and artillery. The third fight would be with Iraqi special-operations units that would slip into Saudi Arabia and attack from the rear.

Though the Pentagon senior officers have little doubt they would ultimately defeat Saddam Hussein, they think the cost could be high. “I don’t think we should fool anyone into thinking there are not going to be casualties,” says Arnold. Intelligence analysts in Washington, meanwhile, project total U.S. casualty figures as high as 20,000.

There are time factors at work, and Bush’s window for war might close. By March, rising temperatures will make large military operations much more difficult, if not impossible. Another ominous time limit is the Muslim fast of Ramadan, which begins in March, followed by the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca of hundreds of thousands of the faithful. The Saudi government would face a huge threat of terrorism with so many arrivals from Islamic countries where Saddam is regarded as a hero, along with the embarrassment of Western armies camped on Saudi soil. “Ramadan is no time to have infidels killing Muslims,” says an intelligence officer in Washington. “If the President doesn’t do it by March, we’re talking about next fall.”

That would be a very long wait for action and could put an intolerable strain on military morale, domestic opinion and the political links that support the coalition of American, Arab and European armies. Impatience to get the crisis over with and a growing recognition that efforts for a peaceful resolution have made no headway are producing a sense that war is inevitable.

Only two men have the power to decide whether war breaks out. Saddam, once he is convinced that the U.S. really means to attack, could withdraw his troops from Kuwait and try for a deal that might reward him with territory, % oil and money from relieved Arab states. While many experts believe retreat would lead to his downfall, there is no clear evidence for that. Saddam has already handed back to Iran territory he seized in eight years of war. He is a ruthless dictator who does as he pleases.

The other man of decision is Bush. With a quarter of a million troops in the region and more on the way, he can hardly behave like the grand old Duke of York, who marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again. He cannot withdraw unless Saddam does so. His political survival would be thrown into question, as would the credibility of the U.S. in the new emerging world. But if it is to be war, Bush will find it reassuring that he can rely on one of the best leadership teams ever to operate in the Pentagon. That could even be an element affecting his decision.




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