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Iraq: Skepticism On Rise In Washington Over Unilateral Iraqi War

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A chorus of skepticism about going to war with Iraq is rising within President George W. Bush's own Republican Party. While it may not be enough to stop military action from taking place, the dissent is growing into a fuller national debate on the wisdom of going to war.

Washington, 28 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For months, Washington has been abuzz about the possibility of the U.S. war on terrorism shifting its focus to a new target: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Yet for all the talk, there has been surprisingly little debate about the prudence of launching a new war.

Earlier this year, with 11 September still fresh in Americans' minds and President George W. Bush's popularity ratings at a record high, few openly questioned the wisdom of using force to oust the Iraqi leader. Although Saddam had no proven links to terrorism, the U.S. believed he was capable of developing weapons of mass destruction and clearly saw him as a threat.

That perception has not changed. But there is growing dissent among U.S. lawmakers and former officials -- many from within Bush's own Republican Party -- that a unilateral preemptive military strike is the best way to effect "regime change" in Iraq.

On 26 August, Vice President Dick Cheney made what may have been the White House's strongest public case to date on the need for preemptive action, despite growing international opposition to a new Iraqi war. He told a gathering of U.S. military veterans: "Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network, or a murderous dictator, or the two working together constitute as grave a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action."

President Bush, however, continues to insist he has still not decided on a course of action on Iraq and will consider all means, including political and diplomatic, to achieve his goal of ousting Saddam and his regime.

After a meeting yesterday between the U.S. president and the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "The president made very clear again that he believes Saddam Hussein is a menace to world peace, a menace to regional peace and that the world and the region would be safer and better off without Saddam Hussein."

But is war the best way to get rid of him?

U.S. House of Representatives majority leader Dick Armey, a conservative Bush ally, who, like the president, is from Texas, was among the first to openly oppose war, saying it would be unprovoked. "America is a nation that does not attack other nations unless we have a clear provocation," Armey said earlier this month. "It's not about who Iraq is. It's about who we are."

Since then, other prominent American voices have likewise criticized the notion that the U.S. should ignore growing international opposition and preemptively attack Baghdad.

They include former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Both served in the administration of Bush's father, which failed to oust Saddam 10 years ago despite successfully driving invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Jessica Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. Mathews told RFE/RL that after much speculation a national debate appears to have finally begun on a new Iraqi war, a war that has the potential to be not only unpopular internationally, but also immensely costly and dangerous for U.S. troops. But, she said, the debate has only begun. "The public debate didn't start until two weeks ago, three weeks -- the real public debate. Before that it was just when and how, not whether and why. So I believe the important part of this debate is yet to come," Mathews said.

Other lawmakers who have expressed skepticism include Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan); the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican, Nebraska); Senator Dick Lugar (Republican, Indiana); and Senator Pat Roberts (Republican, Kansas).

There is also former Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, who, like the others, has said that only "incontrovertible evidence of Iraqi participation or complicity" in the 11 September attacks would justify war on Iraq.

But there are signs that the administration is listening. The American newspaper "The Washington Times," which has respected intelligence sources, reported on 26 August that the Pentagon has begun circulating a detailed assessment of Iraq's biological, chemical, and nuclear programs to key allies and lawmakers.

Meanwhile, speculation is rife that senior military officials are also wary about war in Iraq, even if public remarks have been limited to retired officers. Joseph Hoar, a retired Marine general who commanded forces in the Persian Gulf, said that a new war would be risky and perhaps unnecessary.

Finally, the administration itself is reportedly divided over the issue. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was the country's top military leader during the first Gulf war, is known as a strong proponent of having an international coalition for any military action and reportedly would oppose a unilateral strike.

One voice that Bush must have heard clearly is that of former Secretary of State James Baker. Writing in "The New York Times" on 25 August, Baker said Saddam posed a grave threat but urged the administration not to go it alone. He said the White House must try to get a new United Nations resolution passed calling for UN arms inspectors to be given fresh, unfettered access to Iraq.

Baker said the U.S. would occupy "the moral high ground" with such a request, which would "help build international support" -- support, presumably, for war if Saddam did not comply with the resolution. If the Security Council voted it down, Baker said the White House would still be free "to weigh its options" on Iraq.

Key senators have come out in support of Baker's proposal, including Arlen Specter (Republican, Pennsylvania) and Bob Graham (Democrat, Florida), who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke also echoed Baker's proposal. But in an article published by the "The Washington Post" on 27 August, Holbrooke added explicitly that the new resolution should authorize the use of force if Saddam did not comply.

But will Bush follow such advice? Nancy Soderberg, a former deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN and now a vice president at the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL that she has her doubts. "I think it's an honest debate that's going on within the administration and the fact is that the president hasn't made any decisions. And so it's sending very mixed messages around the world and I think they're increasingly less interested in getting the inspectors back and more interested in having a military confrontation with Saddam," Soderberg said.

A poll released last week by the American television network CBS says that two-thirds of Americans back military action against Iraq but want Bush to get prior congressional approval. The same number says the U.S. needs to build allied support before acting against Iraq.

This week, White House officials said Bush's lawyers believe the president can order a strike on Iraq without consulting Congress, which under the U.S. Constitution is deemed to be the only one that has the right to declare war.

But given the concern in Congress, it could be politically explosive to avoid consulting lawmakers before any strike.

For the record, Bush says he will consult them, if the time comes.