Accessibility links

U.S.: Leaked Document Shows White House Rift Over War With Iraq

  • Andrew Tully

For years, the United States government has supported what it calls a "regime change" in Iraq. On 8 July, U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated that policy explicitly. But what is not so clear is how Washington would go about removing Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq, if it chose to do so by military action. International security analysts told RFE/RL that there is a serious debate within Bush's administration on what shape that action should take.

Washington, 9 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has restated the long-standing policy of the American government, that Saddam Hussein must be removed as president of Iraq.

During a news conference at the White House on 8 July, Bush was asked if it remains his intention to remove the Iraqi leader from power. The president replied unequivocally, "Yes," and added: "It's the stated policy of this government to have a regime change [in Iraq]. And it hasn't changed. And we'll use all tools at our disposal to do so."

This policy has been in place since the months preceding the Gulf War of 1991, when Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, was the American president. But there is a debate in the current Bush administration over how to remove Saddam Hussein, if the United States chooses a military solution.

There are two options being discussed. One involves deploying a massive, irresistible force against Iraq's military that would virtually ensure the end of Hussein's rule. The other option would rely more on Iraqi opposition forces for ground combat, supporting them with U.S. special forces and precision air strikes.

It has long been known that the Bush administration has been divided over which military option it would choose. The depth of that division was illustrated last week when someone within the administration leaked information to "The New York Times" about a military planning document that appears to favor the option of a massive U.S. military assault on Iraq without the use of Iraqi opposition forces.

The newspaper says it was briefed about the document by a person who insisted on anonymity and expressed frustration that the Bush administration appears to be leaning toward the massive-military option outlined in the document. The informant told the newspaper that it ignores advances in military technology and tactics over the past decade.

The account was published on 5 July, eight days after retired U.S. Army General Wayne Downing resigned as the senior White House official in charge of coordinating America's counteroffensive against terrorism.

Neither Downing nor the White House gave a reason for his resignation. But his departure may be further evidence of which option Bush may choose if he decides to act against Saddam Hussein.

Downing has been an outspoken supporter of using Iraqi opposition forces to overthrow the Baghdad government, with heavy support from U.S. air power and special forces. This approach is most prominently espoused by Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the London-based Iraqi National Congress, the largest Iraqi opposition group.

Senior U.S. military officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are said to oppose Downing's approach. Instead, they favor a massive deployment of U.S. ground forces.

International security analyst Leon Fuerth says the use of a large U.S. ground force is the only realistic way to ensure that Saddam is driven from power, should the United States decide to take action. Fuerth was Al Gore's national-security adviser when Gore was vice president under Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Fuerth, now a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, told RFE/RL that in Afghanistan, it was reasonable for U.S. forces to rely on the Northern Alliance to remove the Taliban from power. He said the Northern Alliance was an experienced and well-armed fighting force.

According to Fuerth, the Iraqi opposition, on the other hand, is untested and probably unprepared. Therefore, he said, the U.S. would be wrong to entrust it with the bulk of the fighting against Hussein's highly trained and loyal forces. "Being defeated cannot be an option for us. That means that, whatever our opening moves might be, there has to be enough force racked up [in reserve] behind it to do the job no matter what," Fuerth said.

Fuerth said the leaking of the military planning document demonstrates the intensity of the debate within the Bush administration. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard agrees. During his military career, Allard served as an intelligence officer, and is now a military and security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy-research institute in Washington.

Allard said such debate is a healthy way for an administration to reach a decision on an important topic. But he questioned the motives of the person who leaked the information to "The New York Times." "It's good that we have this contest of ideas. It is not good when that contest of ideas spills over into the press, revealing some of the most sensitive calculations that the U.S. government is apparently making," Allard said.

Fuerth agrees, and goes further. He said the leak to the newspaper is a betrayal of trust from someone with access to the highest councils of the U.S. government. "It means that there's somebody in that system who doesn't trust the internal mechanisms of the administration to reach the right decision for the country and who isn't prepared to be bound by the decisions that that mechanism reaches, and is trying to make policy through public opinion, which is O.K. for politicians, but they're out in public battling for support. It's a different matter when someone on the inside betrays a trust in order to make a point," Fuerth said.

Fuerth also was asked if the United States government would be justified in mounting a unilateral attack on Iraq. He replied that such an attack would not be unilateral, but fully legal within the context of the Gulf War, in which the United Nations authorized a coalition of countries, led by Bush's father to drive Iraqi forces out of neighboring Kuwait.

According to Fuerth, Saddam Hussein has repeatedly violated UN resolutions and the terms of the cease-fire that ended the hostilities, most notably refusing to admit inspectors to determine whether his government is trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. "Nothing has really changed in terms of policy, that is, 'Get rid of him,' and nothing has really changed in terms of the underlying legalities, because all of that can be based upon the fact that [Saddam Hussein] has failed to execute his obligations under mandatory UN Security Council resolutions and has violated the terms of the cease-fire," Fuerth said.

In fact, Fuerth said, because there is only a cease-fire, but no formal treaty ending the war, the U.S. government, under the UN mandate, could resume hostilities at any time.

But according to the timetable envisioned by the military planning document cited in the newspaper account, any attack -- if Bush approves one -- would not come before next year.