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Inside Politics

7 Questions To Ponder

By Johanna McGeary
Reported by Massimo Calabresi, John F. Dickerson and
Douglas Waller/Washington and Scott MacLeod/Cairo

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Think about this. two months ago, you had no idea that war with Iraq was necessary. Now, combat seems to be just around the corner. As Washington debates military action, do you know where you stand?

One man who has clearly made up his mind is George W. Bush. The President has been masterful at speeding events over and around hurdles toward the point of no return; he massaged a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq just enough to win bipartisan support inthe House of Representatives last week.

The Senate, where many lawmakers harbor misgivings about Bush's drive to overthrow Saddam Hussein, has begun to give the arguments their most thorough airing yet. But by the time the debate's up and votes are cast, the Senators too are likely to grant the President approval to fight.

Simultaneously, at the United Nations, other countries are wrestling with their roles, under intense U.S. pressure to underwrite a rapid go-ahead. Yet for the rest of us, the how-far-should-we-go-in-curbing-Saddam debate is just beginning to percolate. The choice isn't clean: questioning Bush's plans is not the same as calling for the continued survival of an odious regime. The President this week intends to dwell in ever more demonizing detail on "Saddam's evil bag of tricks," as an adviser put it.

But most Americans already get that. What sometimes is lost in the debate is a clear-eyed analysis of the risks and benefits of going after Saddam. Here are seven questions worth considering in the days ahead.


The White House is certain that re-newed U.N. inspections won't end the threat of Saddam continuing to accumulate weapons of mass destruction and that only his demise will do the trick. Former U.N. inspectors tend to agree. In eight years of policing the country, they found and destroyed sizable quantities of his weapons of mass destruction, but not all of the ones he was known to have. Since inspections broke off in 1998, Saddam is widely believed to have retooled and restocked chemical and biological agents and brought his nuclear program back into high gear, while vastly improving his capacity to hide it all. His history of deception and game playing makes a fresh attempt to root out the arsenal in this way difficult. Saddam, says former inspector David Kay, "will always defeat a U.N.-type of inspection made up of 100 to 300 people in a country as large as Iraq." Nevertheless, almost everyone outside the most committed hard-liner thinks inspections should be given one last chance.

Bowing to that reality, the Administration's fallback is to demand that the U.N. prescribe a new regime for unfettered inspections that is so in Iraq's face that it might work. And if it doesn't, as the Administration frankly would prefer, it would give the U.S. a legitimate pretext for war. In its view, either inspectors would find something that would trigger action, or they would be blocked by Saddam: either would be cause for green-lighting the bombers. Much of Western Europe and the Arab world clings to the hope that war can still beavoided if unhindered inspections expose and destroy Saddam's arsenal.

But they agree that Iraq gives way only when under dire threat. The issue has come down to how tough a new resolution on inspections the Security Council will write. There's an emerging consensus that stringent new rules are needed. The U.S.-British draft proposes tough terms calling for Iraq to comply in 30days, opening everything, including Saddam's highly suspect presidential compounds, giving the inspectors armed guards to facilitate searches--and, most important, authorizing force if Iraq makes a misstep. Washington says only such a definite promise of force could make inspections work.

Critics see these terms as ones that no one could accept. France and Russia, with veto power in the council, are leading the campaign to tone down the terms enough to give inspections a chance. Both balk at writing in an advance approval for war; France wants to reserve that for a second resolution, in the event Iraq fails to fulfill the first. The Administration now seems resigned to working out a program that most of the council--the U.S. needs nine yeses, no vetoes--can live with. But no matter what the U.N. does to disarm Iraq, it would be extraordinary if the U.S. were to pause in its push to depose Saddam. In very few instances has this Administration allowed the international community to change a core U.S. policy.


The Bush team says it very much wants U.N. support but that it will go to war alone if it has to. This is both true and a negotiating posture. The Administration believes only the fear that the U.S. will act alone can squeeze approval out of the Security Council. But if the U.S. does not get a resolution that fits Bush's criteria, the Administration means it when it says it will go to war anyway.

As a practical matter, the U.S. wants and needs allies. U.N. approval confers legitimacy that even a superpower can't claim by itself, and such approval is essential in the Middle East. Nations such as Saudi Arabia might not agree to serve as staging bases without U.N. backing, and Bush can't place all the troops he'll need for the war on aircraft carriers. Other friendly Arab nations like Jordan, Egypt and Qatar need U.N. cover to deflect accusations that they are party to an attack on a brother Arab country.

With U.N. sanction, it will be easier to convince ordinary Arabs that the war is legitimate and the fault is Saddam's. If the U.N. doesn't come through, the Administration is instead preparing to lead a "coalition of the willing." Italy, Australia, Poland, Spain, Qatar, Kuwait and, of course, best-pal Britain might all agree to take part in military action without a Security Council mandate.


The Administration claims the fighting should produce a swift, relatively painless victory, with Saddam gone in weeks. That's based largely on the presumption that his power is brittle, large segments of his army will surrender and his command will be decapitated before he can unleash his weapons of mass destruction. While outside experts say the war will probably go well, given U.S. air and technological superiority, they warn that the U.S. can't assume easy success. Saddam lost about 40% of his conventional force in the 1991 Gulf War.

His current 375,000-man army is of uneven quality, his air force mostly grounded and his navy nonexistent. The CIA says he can't project his power very far and has trouble moving his tanks and artillery swiftly. Does that mean Iraq will crumble on impact? Not necessarily. "You have to anticipate the worst-case scenario--that it will be a vicious, ferocious fight," says Nebraska's Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran. The outcome probably turns on how vigorously the 60,000-strong Republican Guard fights.

Most experts say it would be foolhardy to write off Saddam's most loyal, best-trained troops, especially if the fighting comes to the streets of Baghdad. The dollar costs, meanwhile, will be pretty steep. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last week estimated it would cost $9 billion to $13 billion to deploy forces, $6billion to $9 billion a month to prosecute the war and then $5 billion to $7 billion to transport GIs back home. Add a peacekeeping mission that the CBO estimates would cost $1 billion to $4 billion a month, and the total for three months of combat plus five years of occupation would be $272 billion.


In the last war, Saddam guaranteed his survival by refraining from using his weapons of mass destruction. But in a war aimed directly at killing him off, he would have no incentive to play nice. He'll lose if he doesn't use them. Pentagon war plans assume that precision air attacks with smart bombs can find and safely destroy hidden caches of bio-chem agents that inspectors have failed to uncover.

The plans also presume that this can be done before Saddam unleashes any of those weapons. The bombers also need to take out Saddam's 20 to 30 Scud missiles (which they were not able to do in 1991) before he can fire warheads loaded with conventional explosives or perhaps chemical agents at Israel or his Arab neighbors. Even if all these pre-emptive measures are taken, Saddam could still try a crude pre-emptive strike of his own, using chem or bio agents against U.S. forces as they gather.

But chemical weapons are hard to control on the battlefield; shifting winds could blow them back on Iraqi soldiers. U.S. forces will go into battle in full protective gear. And the Administration says it plans to warn Iraqi generals and colonels who might order the use of bio-chem weapons that they will be arrested and tried for war crimes if they do.

Although it rarely says so out loud, the Administration intends to kill Saddam--or capture him, if it must. Some in the Arab world say it might not be so easy: his inner circle will protect him, knowing they either hang together or hang separately. But others say if Baghdad falls, someone close to Saddam could step in to finish him off. In the end, Saddam could very well elude all his enemies thanks to his doubles, his secret hideaways and his nomadic way of life.


Bush long scorned nation building. But to hear Vice President Cheney tell it, good times will bloom in Iraq as soon as the shooting stops. "In other times, the world saw how the U.S. defeated fierce enemies, then helped rebuild their countries," he said, calling to mind the wondrous effect of the Marshall Plan in Europe.

The U.S., says Cheney, will shape an Iraq "that is democratic and pluralistic, a nation where the human rights of every ethnic and religious group are recognized and respected." Yet Washington sometimes gives the impression that it isn't much worried what the next government will look like.

Asked by TIME about the shambolic state of the Iraqi opposition, a senior Administration official replied, "Personally, I don't care." But the U.S. will have to care. Iraq has no experience with democracy and no cohesive society. The country has been dominated by Sunni Muslims, a minority, since well before the monarchy fell in 1958; meanwhile, the Kurds in the north and the majority Shi'ites mainly in the south have long sought autonomy, if not outright independence.

The opposition in exile is an unruly assortment of factions with different objectives, rival patrons and geographically separate constituencies back home. There is no ready-made unifying fi*Aigure whom the U.S. can install and no prescription for power sharing among the factions. Arab leaders are worried that ineffectual nation building would encourage separation into warring zones such as the enclaves that tore up Lebanon for 15 years. Iraq's neighbors are just as petrified that a post-Saddam Iraq will fly apart. The Kurds, now virtually autonomous under the protection of U.S. and British jets, trouble Turkey.

That faithful U.S. ally has its own restive population of Kurds, which Ankara fears might be attracted to join an independent Kurdistan. At the same time, Iran might see an opportunity to make league with Iraq's 64% Shi'ite population in the south, especially since that territory is home to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. To ward off such consequences, the U.S. needs the sticking power for a long, rough occupation.

That will almost certainly require stationing upwards of 50,000 troops in Iraq, as well as billions of dollars for reconstruction. Critics point to Washington's historical fickleness when it comes to nation building. "Is America going to sit in Baghdad for five years to rebuild institutions?" asks a gulf diplomat. "Washington won't have the stomach for it."


Whenever the U.S. intervenes in the Middle East, it's warned of the dangers of Arab reaction. The Administration seems to shrug that off. There were dire predictions that the Arab street would explode during the first Gulf War and during the Afghan campaign, but it didn't, really, in either case. Still, diplomats and leaders in the Middle East say it would be wise to take such possibilities into account.

There's anxiety that a war would unite Arab nations against the U.S., especially in an atmosphere charged by the unresolved Palestinian crisis. Bombing, refugees and casualties will fill Arab television screens in a way that was not possible 11 years ago, when networks like al-Jazeera did not exist.

Some in the Administration, for their part, think that a democratic Iraq would act as a beacon of stability to the Middle East. The gravest concern in Arab capitals is that Israel will step in. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made no secret of his readiness to hit back if Iraq strikes his country. That would "Zionize" the war and perhaps broaden it to the whole region.


Toppling saddam will not have the same effect on al-Qaeda as ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan. But the Administration argues that Saddam's departure will deprive terrorists of a potential source of unconventional weapons. Others think terrorists might more readily pick up the stuff amid the chaos of war.

The Vice President has suggested that a successful strike against Saddam would discourage Arab zealots from embracing terrorism: "When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace," he said. But images of Americans killing Iraqis, say experts like Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council adviser on terrorism, might "further the jihadist cause" by "confirming bin Laden's argument that the U.S. is at war with Islam."

The first Gulf War, he adds, "was a catalytic event for the Islamists who formed al-Qaeda" because it stationed U.S. troops permanently on sacred Islamic soil. One side argues this war could stanch terrorism, while another argues it could breed it. The debate is abstract for now.

But it is better to have it, with all of its frustrating hypotheticals, than to leave things unsaid. Bush may have handled the doubters masterfully so far. But he may find he needs them--and everyone else--in his corner if the war turns ugly.

--Reported by Massimo Calabresi, John F. Dickerson and Douglas Waller/Washington and Scott MacLeod/Cairo ends on Dec. 5

Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.

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