What Is Bush Up To In Iraq?

Most Americans just want to bring the troops home. They can't tell a Kurd from a Shiite, and they don't much care whether Iraq splits into pieces. But for policymakers in Washington, the success of the gulf war was a reaffirmation of America's role as global policeman, and a reminder that force or the threat of it can be a very useful nightstick. As a result, the Fourth of July fetes will probably come late for at least some U.S. soldiers. Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested last week that the military will keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein "for some months to come." George Bush shied away from a timetable, but added that "normal relations with the United States cannot be effected with Saddam Hussein still calling the shots."

The U.S. goal is "twofold and somewhat contradictory," acknowledges a senior U.S. Official. Washington wants an insurrection that will help topple Saddam. But the administration does not want a rebellion so strong that it leads to Iraq's dismemberment, thus creating "another Lebanon." That would be an invitation for Iran or Syria to muscle in and upset the balance of power in the region. Rather, the hope is that the Iraqi Army and the ruling Baath Party will see that, by clinging to power, Saddam is only leading his country to ruin. If he is overthrown, Iraq will remain unified, probably under an authoritarian regime but one less menacing to its neighbors than that of Saddam Hussein.

Revolutions are difficult to control and impossible to calibrate. "Once these forces become unleashed they are not simple to put back in the bottle," Powell conceded. The Pentagon's leverage is limited by unwillingness to resume a full-scale war. Certainly, the American Army is not about to march on Baghdad; the tens of thousands of soldiers still stationed in southern Iraq are there mostly as a "reminder that we won," said a White House senior official. It was also designed to keep a lid on Saddam's military response to the rebellion. Following a U.S. declaration of intent to shoot down any Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft that dared take to the skies, F-15s last week shot down two Iraqi warplanes. The Americans have not downed any of Saddam's helicopter gunships, but they almost certainly will if the Iraqi strongman resorts to chemical weapons to put down the rebels. The White House is relying on diplomacy as well as the threat of force. Bush has repeatedly told the Iraqis that the United States will be less demanding about reparations and continued sanctions against Iraq if Saddam is removed. Washington is pressing the United Nations for a permanent cease-fire that will ultimately replace coalition forces with a U.N. peacekeeping force along the Saudi-Iraq border. But the transition could take months, leaving American troops with vast tracts of the Iraqi desert to monitor.

Any army of occupation is at risk, a target for terrorists and an unwilling player in local politics. "Now they're turning to us for Band-Aids and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)," said a senior U.S. official last week. "But given how quickly the situation in Iraq is deteriorating, it won't be long before they're asking us to open their schools or protect them from hostile Kuwaitis or even other Iraqis. That's a dead loser for us." The danger, of course, is that once American troops are sucked into such an ill-defined, open-ended role, it becomes difficult to extricate them.

General Powell said last week that ultimately the Arabs will organize their own regional security structure. But he also revealed that the Pentagon's Central Command will be moving its permanent headquarters from Tampa, Fla., to an as-yet undisclosed location in the Persian Gulf. Before Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Arabs always wanted to keep the American military presence over the horizon, out at sea aboard carriers and warships. It is still doubtful that the Pentagon will station a large standing Army in the region; stockpiles of weapons and equipment are more like it. But as events last week simply underscored, the American military is in the Middle East to stay.