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U.S.: Generals Said To Be Cautious About Hitting Iraq

  • Jeffrey Donovan

When U.S. President George W. Bush toured Europe last month, he was met with street protests against, among other things, his bellicose rhetoric regarding Iraq and the widespread perception that the White House may seek to attack Baghdad. But opposition to an Iraqi war may be growing in an unexpected place on the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. military.

Washington, 14 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Although he says he has no war plans on his desk, U.S. President George W. Bush has clearly stated his commitment to see America's policy of "regime change" in Iraq to its logical end: the ouster, by force if required, of President Saddam Hussein.

But despite firm opposition among European allies and Russia to any U.S.-led attack on Iraq, the idea's most important critics may actually be in Bush's own backyard, among his top military brass.

Analysts and U.S. media say a debate is raging at the Pentagon between its civilian chiefs and uniformed military leaders on two key points: the perceived threat from Baghdad and the effort required to oust Saddam and rebuild the country with a friendly, democratic government.

That debate, analysts say, comes amid growing reluctance inside the State Department toward any U.S.-led war against Iraq on the grounds that it would be too costly and detract U.S. diplomacy from a host of other pressing world issues, not the least of which are Afghanistan and the Middle East crisis.

Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon official, is a senior fellow at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. "While there is broad political consensus on the need for regime change in Iraq, there is still substantial debate in Washington and the United States over whether military action is the right way to achieve that objective," Flournoy said.

According to civilian Pentagon leaders, the threat that Saddam could harm America, perhaps by giving arms of mass destruction to terrorists, is real and imminent.

That view, common in Washington since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, was repeated on 11 June when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters during a visit to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar that regime change in Iraq is vital. "They have weapons of mass destruction and are developing biological weapons," he said.

But many Pentagon generals reportedly disagree with their civilian bosses on the immediacy of the Iraqi threat. Ken Pollack, a member of former President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, said that according to their thinking, urgent action isn't needed as it is believed that Saddam won't actually have nuclear weapons for three to five years. "On the one hand, there is an argument that says, 'Saddam Hussein is the most dangerous character in the world and we have to get rid of him immediately.' On the other hand, there is an argument, which I am more predisposed to, which says, Saddam Hussein is a tremendous threat to the United States, but he is not an immediate threat. He is somewhat of a longer-term threat," Pollack said.

U.S. media recently reported that America's top military leadership body, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has carried out a concerted, behind-the-scenes effort to persuade the Bush administration to back away from its posturing on Iraq, which has made war appear "inevitable."

According to the reports, America's top generals have insisted, including in a secret briefing to Bush last month by General Tommy Franks, the man who has led the Afghan war, that any effort to overthrow Saddam would require far more firepower and U.S. troops than so far estimated. Franks reportedly told Bush that it would require more than 200,000 American soldiers, and that Saddam should be expected to use chemical or biological weapons, causing a great many casualties.

The secret briefings by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the reports, did not mention as a possibility what has long been considered a second option in overthrowing Saddam: a coup within Baghdad's ruling circle, particularly among disaffected military officers. Some analysts say that option may be harder to pull off than full-blown war.

Franks' assessment flies in the face of calls earlier this year by some defense experts simply to impose the "Afghan model" on Iraq, i.e., to combine U.S. air power with indigenous opposition forces on the ground, such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, to topple the government.

Robert Pelletreau, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs under Clinton, agrees with Franks that the "Afghan model" won't work. Pelletreau said Saddam has quashed any armed resistance movements and as a result, the Iraqi opposition is fragmented, weak, and cannot be relied on for military backing. "It doesn't mean we shouldn't be supporting them. But I think considering them as some sort of an Iraqi Northern Alliance that could actually carry forward warfare would be very unwise. I just don't see it," Pelletreau said.

Another question raised by the generals is what to do in Iraq once Saddam is overthrown. Many analysts say nothing short of a costly and dangerous U.S. military occupation of the country would be required in order to lay the groundwork for a new, democratic government.

But with the U.S. and international community already coping with a similar situation in Afghanistan -- and, according to some, falling short in "winning the peace" there by not backing a nationwide peacekeeping force -- an Iraqi campaign would simply spread America's diplomatic and military resources too thin. Or so goes the thinking.

Accordingly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have reportedly asked Bush and other key officials to postpone any military action against Iraq, if not, in fact, to can the idea altogether.

Their concerns touch at the very heart of U.S. military policy since the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s.

That U.S. military leadership came out of that conflict, in which it lost thousands of soldiers and came under severe public criticism, bitter at what it saw as constraints put on its operations by politicians in Washington.

As a result, a policy known as the "Powell Doctrine" emerged. Named after its chief proponent, current Secretary of State Colin Powell, the doctrine says that no war should be fought unless it has the full backing of the American people and government and provides the military with the ability to use overwhelming force against its enemy to achieve a swift and complete victory at a minimum cost. A clear "exit strategy" must also be in place.

Flournoy said that while the U.S. military has had some success in following the Powell Doctrine, it has also been put into conflicts by government leaders that did not meet up to the policy's requirements, such as the failed U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. And for as much as they can, Flournoy said, the generals do not wish to repeat such experiences. "I think the military tends to take a very conservative view. They want to be absolutely sure, given their experience in Vietnam and Somalia and elsewhere, that they conduct missions for which there is strong and firm political support. They do not want to get out front of public opinion, and frankly even international opinion, on many issues," Flournoy said.

Pollack concurs. "I think that the opposition within the Pentagon is serious. I think there really are questions about whether we want to pay the costs and run the risks of regime change in Iraq," Pollack said.

But if the generals point to the Powell Doctrine as the basis for any action in Iraq, there are signs their civilian bosses may be outflanking them by establishing a whole new strategic doctrine altogether.

This week, the media reported on plans by the White House to formalize a new strategic doctrine that moves the military beyond the Cold War policy of deterrence and containment to one allowing for preemptive strikes against terrorists or hostile states with arms of mass destruction.

The idea of a preemptive strike was first alluded to by Bush in his State of the Union speech in January, when he called Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil" and vowed that America would not wait to be attacked again -- especially with nuclear arms -- before striking the enemy.

But analysts such as Flournoy say the new preemptive-strike doctrine, while understandable in terms of security in the post-11 September world, may also be part of an attempt by civilian leaders to overcome the generals' resistance to action against Iraq. "I think the administration is probably trying to begin to prepare the ground of public opinion for potential military action in Iraq. There is a very strong commitment still within the administration to change the regime in Iraq, by force if necessary. I think some of these statements are intended to lay the ground for that," Flournoy said.

Ultimately, the Bush administration will decide whether to go to war. But the views of the generals are undoubtedly important and it remains to be seen whether the new strategic doctrine on preemption will end up softening the Joint Chiefs' demands on following the Powell Doctrine.

Finally, there is the State Department, which has a history of tense ties with Iraq's main opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, or INC. The State Department is seen as lacking confidence in the INC, and has expanded its contacts to include a wider range of opposition groups in a move that some analysts say may marginalize the INC's London-based leadership, which has some supporters in the U.S. Congress.

The INC's credibility problem underscores the point made implicitly in the proposals of the Joint Chiefs Staff: An Iraqi war cannot rely on indigenous opposition forces.

But Pollack said the State Department's reluctance to embrace an Iraqi war also derives partly from another consideration: The war would become America's overriding foreign-policy initiative for at least a year, if not several years.

In that light, the State Department's various efforts -- seeking peace in the Middle East, helping Russian democracy, engaging China, forging a new relationship with India, fighting AIDS in Africa -- would become minor priorities compared with the monumental task of war and its aftermath.

For his part, Pelletreau said that while containing Saddam does not solve the fundamental problem of the threat he poses, "the belt of containment" should be kept tight around him until the U.S. sees sufficient regional and international support for a broader effort at regime change.