Bush Wants Big Bad Saddam

If George W. Bush bothered to turn on C-SPAN and watch the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Iraq, he might have learned he has a problem -- not with Senate Democrats, but with Senate Republicans. As various experts testified about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein (actually, the possible threat), the appropriate U.S. response, and what obligations the United States might be stuck with after a military attack on Iraq, at least two key GOPers, Senators Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel, expressed doubts about the rush to war and seemed to be signaling "whoaaa" to the White House. And the two joined with Democrat Joe Biden, the committee chairman, in saying often that the White House had promised them it would not strike Iraq either before the November elections or without consulting Congress. This was a piece of Washington theater, with influential senators publicly laying down a marker -- and trying to box Bush in. Lugar is essentially the ranking Republican on the committee, now that Jesse Helms is sidelined due to health problems; Hagel is a Vietnam combat hero with McCain-ish credibility on military topics.

Did this maneuver succeed? We'll know by Nov. 5. But the hearings posed another challenge for Bush, for the testimony of the witnesses did little to clarify how much of a threat (if any) Saddam represents or what the United States should do about him. Ambassador Richard Butler, the former executive chairman of the UNSCOM inspection team in Iraq, called for military action. But he said this should only happen for the "right reasons," and he enumerated three: "Saddam's flagrant violation of human rights; his continuing refusal to comply with international law as expressed in binding decisions of the Security Council; and, his violation of arms control obligations and treaties."

The view that the U.S. should punish Saddam with force for being bad on human rights and breaking international law -- actions that often don't spur a U.S. invasion -- is a much different argument than that advanced by the get-Iraq warriors of the Bush administration. They claim Saddam is a direct security threat to the United States. The more honest of this lot assert Saddam is not yet a threat but could soon become one by developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which he then could hurl (suicidally, it seems) at U.S. targets or share with anti-American terrorists. Yet these hearings exposed the flaws in this thinking -- and that was true even though Biden had declined to invite Scott Ritter, the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, who has been the most vocal critic of invading Iraq. Butler, for one, noted that "I have seen no evidence of Iraq providing WMD to non-Iraqi terrorist groups. I suspect that, especially given his psychology and aspirations, Saddam would be reluctant to share what he believes to be an indelible source of his own power." Robert Gallucci, a veteran diplomat and dean of the Foreign Service School at Georgetown University, testified that "no one outside of Iraq knows with high confidence what [Iraq's WMD] capabilities are today." He added, "If Iraq does acquire WMD, the threat still does not rise to a critical level because our deterrent, our threat to retaliate in the event of Iraqi use of WMD, is credible and effective."

Other witnesses were more certain Saddam is a clear and present danger. But several experts maintained that the frightening prospects that drive the hawks -- Saddam passing a nuke to al Qaeda or launching an irrational attack upon the United States, Israel or a neighbor -- would indeed become more probable if the U.S. strikes Iraq. Then Saddam would have incentive to use whatever weapons he possessed (in a going-out-with-a-bang fashion), and he might be more willing to share his prized WMD with another. At the hearings, Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (no peacenik he), adamantly challenged the notion a military assault against Iraq would be a breeze: "Only fools would bet the lives of other men and women's children and call it a cakewalk or speed-bump." Mass defections of Iraqi troops and anti-Saddam civilian uprisings, he noted, are not a certainty; high-tech precision weapons will still cause civilian casualties (see Afghanistan); urban warfare in Baghdad could be extremely ugly (see Somalia); and Iraq does possess significant conventional military capabilities. It is, he said, "Incredibly dangerous to be dismissive" of the Iraqi military. And a full-scale war against Iraq, Cordesman predicted, would require 1,000 to 1,500 air sorties a day. (The US military averaged 2,800 per day during the Gulf War in 1991.) Anything less, Cordesman claimed, would be "reckless." For that many strikes, the US forces would have to be operating out of significant bases in the region.

It was not all doom and gloom. Retired Lt. General Thomas McInerney, a former assistant vice-chief of staff for the Air Force, presented a "blitz warfare" plan -- kind of a cakewalk -- that he said would achieve Saddam's removal "very expeditiously and with minimum loss of life." As he put it, "This will be the most massive precision air campaign in history, achieving rapid dominance in the first 72 hours." Yet retired General Joseph Hoar, who was commander-in-chief of US Central Command in the early 1990s, said of a war against Iraq, "I would hope it would be based on more than the circumstantial evidence we have at this time." He asserted the United States would need much support from Arab nations and that these governments are not likely to look kindly on such a campaign without substantial progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The Iraqi campaign is a risky endeavor," he commented.

One bottom line: there is little consensus among military thinkers as to why and how to pull this off. Then there's another issue: what comes next? The prevailing assumption, of course, is that the United States will win the military engagement. But does the war automatically end with a U.S.-friendly, democratic government in Iraq, one that eschews all weapons of mass destruction? The Iraqis, Phebe Marr, a former professor at the National Defense University, pointed out, have no experience in democratic governance and the in-exile opposition (groups touted by many of the pro-war crowd) "lacks clear indigenous support." She testified the U.S. could be stuck in Iraq for a while: "If the U.S. is going to take the responsibility for removing the current leadership, it should assume that it cannot get the results it wants 'on the cheap.' It must be prepared to devote some troops on the ground, advisors to help create new institutions, and above all time and effort in the future to see the project through to a satisfactory end. If the U.S. is not willing to do so, it had best rethink the project." At that point, no senator had the heart to note that Afghanistan is turning into a basket case, as the United States and other nations fail to meet the reconstruction and security needs there.

Then retired Colonel Scot Feil, co-director of a post-conflict reconstruction project, told the committee the U.S. would have to keep 75,000 troops in Iraq after the war, for at least a year, to provide security, to secure WMD facilities, to patrol the Iranian border areas, to protect major oil fields, and to fulfill other functions. The annual cost would be $16.2 billion. Feil estimated 5,000 or more troops would need to be stationed in Iraq for five to ten years. (Remember, the U.S. is contributing no troops to the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan and has insisted that force remain below 5000 troops, all of whom are posted only in Kabul and its environs.) You sure don't hear Bush, other administration officials, and the conservative pundits who howl for Saddam's head get into the details like this. As Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of the Iraq Foundation, told the committee, "not enough thinking has been going on in Washington to date about the issue of the day after."

Several senators appeared a bit blown away. Hagel said it was evident the United States had to assemble a significant coalition before launching a war against Iraq. "I'm not ready to jump into military action," he remarked, "especially not a unilateral one." Responding to testimony about the post-war period, Lugar noted, "This is a very daunting process ... I don't see in my mind's eye how this happens." And the melodramatic Biden, noting that the post-war effort could cost $100 billion, exclaimed the war and its aftermath "exceeds anything" the American public has been asked for. And this war would be attempted in order to stop what Saddam might one day do. As Cordesman observed, "It will, in may ways, be our first preemptive war." And where does he come down? "It's a very hard choice," he told me. "This is why I'm not giving anyone a yes or no. If you get all the preconditions together, then you can have an intelligent option. But yes or no -- in a sense, it's impossible to answer now." Even House majority whip Dick Armey, a Republican, has raised objections, saying, "If we try to act against Saddam Hussein, as obnoxious as he is, without proper provocation, we will not have the support of other nation states who might do so. I don't believe that America will justifiably make an unprovoked attack on another nation. It would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or what we should be as a nation."

Bush's approach to Iraq has been, threaten to shoot first, ask questions later. As those questions start to draw wider public notice -- and there are many questions -- the shoot-first piece of his equation looks less appealing.

David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.

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