Does the unrelenting U.S. military buildup mean that war with Iraq is inevitable? Is there a point of no return? The United States' top general says a military force can always be brought back from the brink of war without firing a shot. But analysts say this assessment ignores political realities.
Washington, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Even as the United States is sending tens of thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf region, President George W. Bush says he has not made a decision whether to go to war with Iraq.
Yet there is a growing feeling in Washington that war is inevitable. And on 15 January, a reporter asked about that concern during a press briefing at the Pentagon. The United States' top military officer, General Richard Myers, said no amount of buildup means that war is a certainty. "Certainly, from a military perspective, there is no point of no return," Myers said.
Military and foreign-policy analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say that is technically true but add a caveat: Politics may create a situation in which a political leader believes he must resort to war.
One is Leon Fuerth, who served as national-security adviser to Al Gore when Gore was vice president for President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2000. Fuerth said that no one knows better than Myers that a military force can be brought to the brink of war and then withdrawn without firing a shot.
But Myers may have been speaking to assuage America's anxiety about war, according to Fuerth. "He's [Myers is] talking to you as an expert. Obviously, he's trying to calm fears that we've reached a point of irrevocability already, but from his point of view, as a practitioner who knows military forces, he's right," Fuerth said.
John Wolfstahl agrees. He is the deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy-research center in Washington. Wolfstahl said that even the most massive deployment of forces can be reversed, as long as hostilities do not begin. "It's not so much a question of 'point of no return,' because we can deploy all of the forces in the U.S. military and still withdraw them. Now, that buildup may be extremely expensive, and it may not be an effective application of our resources, but there's nothing that ever commits us to have to go to war just because the forces are in place," Fuerth said.
Still, Fuerth said it is not so easy maintaining a large force in the field. He said it is difficult to maintain the constant readiness necessary to fight effectively, including the morale of the soldiers and the maintenance of their weapons, vehicles, and other equipment.
According to Fuerth, this means a constant rotation of personnel and materiel to ensure an efficiently run war, if there is a war. "There are factors that make it increasingly difficult to dwell at a certain state of readiness, such as we are now approaching or have already reached, because troops need to be rotated, equipment cannot be kept at the very highest level of readiness. There comes a point at which you have to start pulling elements back to the United States and pushing new elements in [to the war zone], and it gets to be touchy," Fuerth said.
Still, Fuerth and Wolfstahl say that from the perspective of General Myers, even the most massive buildup of armed forces in the Persian Gulf can be recalled without hostilities. But he said that Bush, Myers' boss, may look at the matter differently. "From the president's point of view, it's a different matter. He can stop an attack on a dime. But there are other factors that he has to consider, and that is his credibility if he gets to this level and then pulls back, and whether or not it is politically sustainable to be parked out there with a huge force indefinitely," Fuerth said.
Wolfstahl went further, saying Bush's political survival could depend on whether he goes to war in Iraq. "It would be politically dangerous for the Bush administration to have to run for re-election in 2004 with Saddam Hussein still in power in Iraq. If a year from now the president can't show progress in getting rid of Saddam Hussein, I think it is a political vulnerability for him," Wolfstahl said.
There are, however, other outcomes to the current U.S.-Iraq confrontation, according to Michael O'Hanlon, who also studies war and international affairs at the Brookings Institution, another Washington policy center.
But these outcomes depend entirely either on Hussein's acceding to the United Nations demand that he disarm or Iraqis ousting him.
O'Hanlon said that, considering the size of the U.S. force in the Persian Gulf, Bush has three options. He said that unless things change radically, either the United States will go to war, the Iraqis will admit to developing weapons of mass destruction, or the Iraqi people will overthrow Hussein. "Those are the only three plausible outcomes at this point," O'Hanlon said.
According to Wolfstahl, Bush is now in the position of having to appear bellicose -- perhaps more bellicose than he really is -- if he wants to resolve the situation without going to war. "In order to convince Saddam Hussein that he has to give up his weapons of mass destruction and that we're really serious about getting rid of him if he doesn't, we have to convince him that we're prepared to go to war, and I think that's in large part what the United States is now engaged in. I don't believe the president has made a decision to attack, but I think he has been convinced that the best way to avoid a war is to convince Saddam Hussein that we are prepared to fight," Wolfstahl said.
Therefore, if Bush is convincing, Hussein may step down as Iraq's leader, or elements of his armed forces may rise up and oust him. In other words, perhaps the entire crisis can be resolved without the shedding of blood.