Bush allies question Iraq strategy

Everyone agrees that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous tyrant, but even Senate Republicans are worried that war may do more harm than good.

Published August 1, 2002 10:33PM (EDT)

With the Bush administration pressing allies to support an invasion of Iraq, two Senate Republicans Wednesday cautioned that the administration must present a convincing argument to the American people before taking any military action against Saddam Hussein and warned against launching an invasion without broad international support.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said at a packed hearing that President George W. Bush should try to reassemble the coalition put together by his father during the Gulf War. "Ten years ago, the United States had done the military and diplomatic spadework in the region. We had developed a war plan. Allies in the region permitted U.S. forces to launch attacks from their territory," Lugar said. "Most importantly, we had the support of the American people. We have not yet determined if those same conditions are present today."

Lugar's comments came at the opening of two days of hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee focused on possible U.S. military action in Iraq. Lugar, the panel's highest-ranking Republican, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., criticized the Bush administration's distaste for nation-building and its apparent willingness to take action in Iraq regardless of the deep reservations expressed by U.S. allies around the globe. Lugar offered mild criticisms of the administration's reluctance to rebuild Afghanistan in the months since the Taliban fell, and said that similar neglect of a post-Saddam Iraq could have disastrous consequences.

As Congress begins in earnest to consider the administration's war plans in Iraq, committee members appeared unanimous in the belief that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who deserves to be removed from power. But there are serious doubts among Republicans and Democrats alike about how best to achieve that goal. The subtext of the hearings involved questions that went far beyond possible military action in Iraq. They were questions about the precedent of fighting a "preemptive war," as professor Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies dubbed it, and about the wisdom and ability of the United States to act unilaterally when it comes to foreign policy.

Lugar's concerns were first raised in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times, written with Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "When Saddam Hussein is gone, what would be our responsibilities?" the two senators wrote. "This question has not been explored but may prove to be the most critical. In Afghanistan, the war was prosecuted successfully, but many of us believe our commitment to security and reconstruction there has fallen short. Given Iraq's strategic location, its large oil reserves and the suffering of the Iraqi people, we cannot afford to replace a despot with chaos."

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., joined Lugar in warning that the White House must convince U.S. allies that strikes against Iraq are necessary for global security. "I can think of no historical case where the United States succeeded in an enterprise of such gravity and complexity without the support of a regional and international coalition," he said. "We have a lot to do on the diplomatic track."

Those diplomatic efforts have been underway for months, but have apparently failed thus far to persuade many allies that war against Iraq is necessary at this time. Of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China -- Britain is the only country to join the U.S. in support of possible military action in Iraq.

As the committee meets again Thursday, Bush's effort to woo allies will continue during a White House meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II. But Abdullah is expected to voice his concerns about the seeming inevitability of U.S. military action in Iraq, just as he did in his meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London this week.

It's not just pushback from allies that worries Iraq skeptics. Military experts, including the famously tight-lipped defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, say it would take a more extensive ground campaign to remove Saddam from power than was deployed in the Gulf War. Experts have estimated that it would take 75,000 to 250,000 troops to topple the regime in Iraq. And, military experts say, Americans should be prepared to accept far more casualties than were sustained in the first Gulf War.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar urged the administration to exhaust all diplomatic options before invading Iraq with the intent of toppling Saddam. "It can be done," Hoar testified, "but the risk is, how many lives will be lost?"

The hearings seemed aimed, in part, to slow the increasing sense of inevitability about U.S. military engagement in Iraq. The perception began with Bush's State of the Union address in January, and has been stoked over the last month by a series of front-page stories in the New York Times about Pentagon plans to invade Iraq, apparently leaked by sources within the Bush administration.

Democrats on the committee, including Biden and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., voiced skepticism that Hussein posed an immediate threat to the United States. Biden expressed his belief that Saddam's primary interest was to keep his grip on power, and that the greatest danger of Saddam using chemical or biological weapons against Americans would be if American troops threatened his control of Iraq.

The Bush administration has tagged Iraq as part of an "axis of evil" that harbors and supports terrorist groups. But former U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler told the committee he doubted whether Hussein would be willing to share any of his stockpile or know-how about weapons of mass destruction with other enemies of the United States.

"I have seen no evidence of Iraq providing weapons of mass destruction to non-Iraqi terrorist groups," Butler said. "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 power."

But citing Saddam's "cataclysmic mentality," Butler suggested that Bush faces a heightened challenge in setting a course in Iraq. "It's extremely uncomfortable for us to know that he's there with these weapons," Butler said of Saddam. "But one has to draw a distinction, I think, between that discomfort and a rational calculation of what he might do."

The question of how much of a threat Saddam actually poses to the United States was central in Wednesday's hearing. Committee staffers handed out copies of a story in Sunday's Washington Post that quoted unnamed U.S. military officers who argued the United States should not invade Iraq.

The Post article characterized the schism as one between "officers" and "civilians" in the military, the latter referring to political operatives like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who have long advocated removing Saddam by force.

But Khidir Hamza, a former Iraqi nuclear engineer who is now director of the Council on Middle Eastern Affairs, told the panel that simply assessing the probability of a direct attack on the United States was not the proper way to measure the risk Saddam poses to the Middle East and the rest of the world. If Saddam is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, Hamza argued, it could destabilize the entire Middle East, even if he does not wield them against the United States or Israel.

"Nuclear weapons at least will be the deterrence he needs to have a free hand in the region," Hamza said. "That is the fear."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq Middle East Nuclear Weapons Terrorism