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The Coming War with Saddam

From the July 29, 2002 issue: Sooner than you think.

9:00 PM, Jul 19, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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A CURIOUS THING seems to have happened on the way to the war against Saddam Hussein. Despite President Bush's oft-stated commitment to "regime change" in Iraq, media reports have been rife with speculation that military action is unlikely, maybe even off the table.

These reports continued to appear last week even as the second-ranking Pentagon official was dispatched to Turkey--a critical ally in any military offensive against Saddam Hussein--and spoke openly of ousting the Iraqi dictator. They have come despite numerous reports of a military build-up in key Gulf states. They have come amid credible reports that Saddam Hussein's intelligence forces have stepped up their coordination with al Qaeda terrorists, and as Saddam boasts publicly of funding Palestinian suicide bombers. They have come even as military press officers are discussing with some reporters arrangements for coverage of the coming war. Nor did they cease after President Bush plainly outlined his administration's policy of preemption in a speech delivered at West Point.

So, when a reporter asked the president at a July 8 press conference, "Is it your firm intention to get rid of Saddam Hussein?" he was understandably exasperated.

"It's the stated policy of this government to have regime change," Bush declared. "And it hasn't changed."

Three days after that press conference, a front-page story in USA Today claimed that Bush's national security team had decided against a preemptive strike on Iraq. "A full-scale invasion of Iraq will require significant provocation by Saddam Hussein's regime--such as invading a neighbor, fielding a nuclear weapon or attacking its minority population, top Bush administration officials have concluded." The article further asserted that the Bush team is thus "raising the bar for an invasion, though by no means has ruled it out."

And three days after that, Time magazine's Michael Duffy went even further. He quoted a "top official from one Middle East ally" as saying, "Iraq is over. The window is closed." So, Duffy concluded, "President George W. Bush's team isn't so much preparing for war with Iraq as it is fighting a war with itself about whether and how to fight."

What's happening here seems clear enough. Administration officials opposed to military intervention in Iraq--a dwindling number--are losing one internal battle after another. So they're taking the fight public in an attempt to change Bush's mind.

But they're fighting a battle whose outcome was decided months ago. "It was over by the State of the Union," says one senior administration official.

In fact, the discussions truly taking place behind the scenes at the highest levels of the administration today are revealing for another reason: War with Iraq may come sooner than we think. Among the most pressing concerns are determining the size and shape of the effort; using Saddam's links with al Qaeda to make the "public case" for war with Iraq; and securing congressional authorization. But, however these issues are resolved, the basic question regarding a war to remove Saddam is not "if," it's "how and when."

THE DISCUSSIONS inside the administration over how best to overthrow Saddam Hussein took a decidedly public turn on May 23, when USA Today ran a brief article suggesting deep divisions between military and civilian leaders at the Pentagon. The following day, the Washington Post's military reporter Tom Ricks fleshed out the debate, positing two distinct approaches. The first, attributed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for 250,000 ground troops. The second, said to be favored by the Pentagon's civilian leadership and Gen. Wayne Downing, a top national security adviser, favored massive air attacks to complement U.S. Special Forces on the ground working with the Iraqi opposition. This second approach was known as the "Downing plan."

In a testament to Ricks's record of solid reporting, his article spawned several copycats and helped define a new conventional wisdom on Iraq, one that persists to this day. But several sources--both in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the national security structure--say that disagreement within the administration has been exaggerated in the media.

"It is not accurate to say that there are deep divisions between the uniformed and civilian leadership," says Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It is accurate to say that there is an active, constructive, and cordial dialogue on what is a very serious topic."

Of course, there are serious discussions about how best to depose Saddam Hussein. But according to those involved, the deliberations are remarkable not for their acrimony, but for their single-minded focus--removing Saddam--and their courtesy.