Sound farfetched? Finding the right man who can topple Saddam Hussein without plunging Iraq into civil war, and who can simultaneously please Washington and the anti-American Arab masses, is a tall order. The task is so difficult that, in many sophisticated circles, it is deemed to be impossible. President George W. Bush's bellicose rhetoric has provoked a rumble of disbelief and disapproval among the pundits, think-tank experts, congressional staffers and retired diplomats who form a kind of Permanent Foreign Policy Establishment. Bush can't really be serious about knocking off Saddam, they say. Can he?
He can. The Bush administration has not figured out the "how" or the "when," say senior administration officials, but the president appears determined to overthrow the Iraqi strongman. The timetable, says one top official directly involved in the planning, is "not days or weeks--but not years, either." National-security adviser Condoleezza Rice has said that the president is "a patient man," but another top adviser told NEWSWEEK, "Time is not on our side. We cannot afford to wait for Saddam to get a nuclear weapon." Deterring Saddam is no longer enough, says this source: "He is too capable of making a massive mis-calculation"--by actually using a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) against America or its allies.
Behind Bush's threats against Iraq--and his vigorous waging of the war on terrorism--is a broader agenda, say his closest advisers. And that is nothing less than the reassertion of American power in the world--by a greater willingness to use force, with or without the support of allies, even at the cost of American casualties. Some of Bush's top advisers believe that after the Vietnam War, the pendulum swung too far in the direction of multilateralism and anti-interventionism. Now they are trying to shove it back.
This has come as something of a surprise from a president who, as a candidate, promised to be strong yet "humble" in the pursuit of American interests abroad. Especially since 9-11, Bush has shown unapologetic leadership. "I don't care about the polls," the president tells advisers. (Easier to say, concedes one, when the approval rating is more than 80 percent.) But in Iraq, at least, there is a real risk that the president will overreach. Overthrowing Saddam could transform the Middle East, secure American interests, even give a lift to the bogged-down Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But it could also lead to a cataclysm of unforeseen dimensions.
The chief proponents of this new assertiveness, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have been waiting for their chance for a long time. More than 25 years ago, when Cheney and Rumsfeld were bright young men in the Gerald Ford administration (Cheney as Ford's chief of staff, Rumsfeld in the same job he has today), the "imperial presidency" was in retreat. Vietnam and Watergate had given a bad name to executive power. Congress and the press were in the ascendancy. Scandals and the blame game became the daily routine of government. At the Pentagon and the CIA, once bastions of gung-ho, can-do spirit, the bureaucracy congealed, slowed, grew risk-averse. Rumsfeld and Cheney came to believe that in the eyes of the world, America had become a paper tiger--formidable-looking, but too often ponderous and gun-shy. More than a year ago, when he was first chosen to be secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld told Bush that a crisis was sure to come, and that the new president would have to be willing to "lean forward"--to show the world that America would no longer back down. Bush heartily agreed, Rumsfeld recounted to NEWSWEEK in an interview last month. That crisis arrived with a vengeance on September 11.
These days, the damn-the-torpedoes mood at the top levels of the Bush administration seems right out of the 1950s. In his warning to the president, Rumsfeld's choice of words was revealing of the time warp. "Forward leaning" is an old cold-war euphemism; CIA officials in the late '50s and early '60s were instructed to "lean forward" in their "action memos" to higher-ups. After a long period of self-doubt and decline, the CIA is now urgently gearing up to run covert actions--shades of the agency's plots to overthrow the governments of Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). "Psychological warfare," all the rage in the early years of the cold war, when capitalism and communism were competing around the globe for "hearts and minds," is making a comeback. After Pentagon reporters questioned the role of the newly established Office of Strategic Influence, Secretary Rumsfeld pledged that the Defense Department would not plant false stories. But the PR consultants hired by the Pentagon, the Rendon Group, have a history of running "black ops," say intelligence sources. Among them: a rumor campaign after the gulf war to convince Iraqis that Saddam is sexually impotent. (The Rendon Group denies feeding any falsehoods to the media.)
In the pursuit of evil, will the Bush administration lean too far forward? "Dirty tricks" run by the CIA have a way of backfiring. In the late 1950s the agency hired some porn stars to portray Indonesian President Sukarno having sex with prostitutes. The blue movie was intended to make Sukarno look depraved to his Islamic followers. CIA officials would later chuckle at their own naivete: many Indonesians cheered their leader's apparent sexual prowess. More damaging was the reputation of the CIA for backing repressive right-wing strongmen against popular revolutionaries.
On Iraq, there may be a balance wheel in the Bush machine: Secretary of State Colin Powell. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the administration of Bush "41," General Powell was an avatar of restraint, cooling off policymakers who believed that armed intervention could be cheap or easy. Moderates have been counting on Powell to rein in Bush "43's" hard-chargers, too. So there was some surprise and disappointment in establishment circles when, in recent press interviews and statements to Congress, Powell pointedly echoed the president's "axis of evil" rhetoric and warned that the United States would stand up to Iraq, alone if necessary. Some Bush advisers say that Powell, a good soldier, has simply saluted and signed on with his commander in chief's campaign. But one old foreign-policy hand who is close to Powell saw a more sly operator at work.
"Colin's tactics have changed," says this source, "but his heart hasn't." A master of the Washington game, Powell may see that the best way to head off a disastrously precipitous incursion into Iraq is to play possum on the inside. Bush has ordered his advisers to come up with a practical plan for "regime change" in Iraq. After examining all the options in a methodical way, the president, like Powell, may be convinced that there are no easy ways to get rid of Saddam. Better to continue to contain the Iraqi strongman through more effective economic sanctions and the threat of force.
Without question, Saddam is a hard target. Some of Rumsfeld's civilian advisers at the Pentagon want to apply the lessons of Afghanistan to Iraq. The Taliban was toppled by small groups of American Special Forces, joining up with local insurgents on the ground to blast enemy positions with precision-guided weapons launched from American warplanes. In Iraq, however, the United States may have trouble finding a surrogate force to take on Saddam's Republican Guard, which has been substantially rebuilt since it was routed in the gulf war. Ex-London banker Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the best-known opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, is derided by spooks and diplomats as an opportunist with no real following in Iraq. The CIA, meanwhile, is busily looking for its own Man on a White Horse to ride into Baghdad. It is doubtful that volunteers are rushing forward. Kurds in the north of Iraq and Shiites in the south still bitterly complain that the CIA abandoned the opposition to the tender mercies of Saddam's secret police after the gulf war.
The hawks assert that once the revolution begins and the American bombs start to fall, the Iraqi people, many of whom hate and fear their ruler, will rise up in rebellion. In this scenario, Saddam's own Republican Guard will march on the palace. But what if the troops stay in their barracks and the people do not welcome their liberators with open arms? American ground soldiers will have to grind it out--house to house, if necessary. Pentagon officials shudder at the prospect of urban street-fighting; "Black Hawk Down" was all too realistic a movie. The Joint Chiefs say that invading Iraq will require between 100,000 and 200,000 U.S. troops. (During the gulf war, America sent 500,000 troops to the region, but that was overkill, and since then smart bombs have gotten smarter.)
The United States is likely to get the grudging cooperation of Iraq's neighbors, Turkey and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia will be harder. At a minimum, the United States will need to use Saudi airspace to refuel its warplanes, and the only state-of-the-art air-command center in the region is at the Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert. The Saudi princes have already said that they oppose an American attack on any Arab capital, Baghdad included. When he travels to the Middle East in two weeks, Cheney is expected to try to change their minds. The Saudis will want reassurances that the United States will stick around to clean up the mess after Saddam falls. They may also want American support for a still-emerging Arab peace initiative to try to control the interminable and ever-bloodier conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Bush "43" would like to forge a coalition along the lines of the new world order put together by his father for the gulf war. But America's European allies are threatening to stand on the sidelines with their arms crossed. Conceivably, the Bush administration could muster some support by provoking a casus belli. This spring the U.N. Security Council is expected to demand that Saddam allow in international arms inspectors to identify and eliminate his WMD. If Saddam says no, there may be more support for U.S. intervention. Bush administration officials fear, however, that Saddam will play the fox and say yes. Washington does not want to be drawn into the exasperating game of Lucy-and-the-football that Saddam played with U.N. inspectors during the Clinton administration. A senior administration official told NEWSWEEK that the United States will demand "total, unfettered, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year" inspection rights. Saddam is not likely to permit arms-control inspectors into his bedroom.
There is one more uncertainty in the campaign to get rid of Saddam, and it is the most frightening. The Iraqi strongman is not a suicidal religious fanatic; he does not appear to want to die a martyr's death. But what if he feels trapped, believing that the Americans really are coming for him, dead or alive? Will he lash out and try to use his chemical or biological weapons? Before the gulf war, Bush "41's" secretary of State, James Baker, quietly warned Saddam that if Iraq used a WMD, the United States would no longer feel constrained in its own use of weapons. Rather than risk the nuclear incineration of Baghdad, Saddam did not fire off any rounds from his chem-bio arsenal. But American war aims in 1991 did not include "regime change"; in the next war, Saddam's demise will be the war aim.
Bush's team may advise the president that Saddam lacks the capacity to use a WMD against the United States or its allies. But intelligence is always imperfect; Bush's advisers will not be able to offer any guarantees. The president alone will have to decide. That will be the moment when he weighs the true cost of fighting evil and feels the real burden of command.