Targeting Saddam

Is America really going to invade Iraq? As war talks mounts in the nation's capital, anonymous bureaucrats have been leaking to major U.S. newspapers the administration's possible military plans to oust Saddam Hussein.

One scenario: That the Pentagon-perhaps using Jordan as a base-could deploy as many as 250,000 soldiers to overthrow the Iraqi leader. Another option? A swift strike against Baghdad and key command centers to precipitate a quick collapse of the government.

The Bush administration says it has not yet made a final decision about whether it will take any action at all. But a range of experts told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that attacking Iraq would be a highly risky operation requiring a long-term commitment of troops and resources. NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz spoke to Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the likelihood of an invasion and its effects on an already-volatile region. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Is America really going to go to war against Iraq?

Rachel Bronson: The administration is very serious about the possibility of moving on Iraq. [But] I don't think they've made a decision yet. The debates we're seeing now reflect that they're not convinced, but they're very seriously considering this possibility.

How dangerous is Saddam Hussein right now? Does he have operational mobile weapons laboratories, or weapons of mass destruction?

The administration-and I-believe that if he has weapons of mass destruction that he was able to develop in some way, he would. The UNSCOM [weapons] inspectors uncovered [between] 1991 and 1998 considerable evidence of biological and chemical weapons programs and a nuclear program from the past; [Saddam's] determination to pursue all three of the channels and an interest in acquiring the precursors that are necessary for such a program. He did try to weaponize them [and] has experimented with delivery systems. Thankfully, he hasn't mastered the delivery system yet.

How much progress has he made since the United Nations arms inspectors were kicked out four years ago?

There's very little that we know since 1998.

Jordan's King Abdullah met with President Bush this week and warned about the destabilizing effect of an invasion. What kind of effect is the war talk having on Washington's relations with its Arab allies?

It's extremely dangerous. One of the criticisms of the Clinton administration by the Republicans was that there was a lot of talk and very little action. That same critique can be launched against this administration at the moment. What should be happening is a lot of planning, very little talk. What there is, is a lot of talk and only the beginnings of planning right now.

That brings us to all these leaks about the administration's plans. Who's leaking it, and why?

My sense is that the leaks are coming from the Pentagon, but they may be coming from elsewhere. It's different parts of the building trying to undermine plans they don't agree with. I believe that it's really an internal bureaucratic fight.

Do you see it as a case of the hawks trying to make the war into a self-fulfilling prophesy?

I don't know. You could make the opposite claim: that those who didn't want to fight this war are putting out for public consumption [that] 250,000 American [soldiers] might be necessary. [They're] putting that all out in public before the president can even decide what he wants to do. It could be either side leaking the information.

What's the response from inside Iraq?

They know these discussions are going on inside the U.S. Many are very nervous because they obviously will bear the brunt of this. But there's also recognition that this is a horrible, horrible regime and that if there is some sort of change a lot of people will be a lot better off. I think there's the fear that there will be half measures, that we may go in and leave.

The Mideast is currently even more volatile than usual. Could the invasion threat push Saddam Hussein to decide he's got nothing to lose so he may as well launch an attack against Israel?

We can expect him to do that. That's why the U.S. plan will be to get into parts of Iraq where we think that he may launch something and try to take out as much of his Scud [missiles] as possible. The battle plans being drawn up are trying to make that likelihood much lower.

Have ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda strengthened as a result of recent events?

There's been Iraqi intelligence meetings with some Al Qaeda folks [and] some Egyptians and others have ended up in Iraqi training camps. Very low level, basic stuff. So there have been connections, but no smoking gun. It's important to remember that this administration was committed to the overthrow of the Iraqi regime before September 11. I think they've gotten sloppy in conflating those two issues. The U.S. is [also] confusing important partners and important allies in the rest of the world. The Brits, for instance, who have been strongly behind us, are suddenly getting cold feet because they don't see this connection. People who were behind us on weapons of mass destruction are now rightfully confused about whether this is now about the war on terrorism. That's something the administration is really making a big mistake on.

What about the effect on the price of oil if there is a war? This isn't just an economic question, but a political one-any dramatic change in the price could have significant effects on the entire Mideast as well as other oil-producing countries like Venezuela.

One of the reasons I'm supportive of a move on Iraq is that the continuation of an aggressive leader such as Saddam Hussein is incredibly destabilizing for the region. We have spent decades building up stronger, closer ties with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the gulf states, Turkey. The continued presence of Saddam Hussein really erodes those very important geostrategic relations. The status quo is destabilizing. That was the problem with the Clinton administration: dual containment was an unsustainable policy. In terms of the effect of the price of oil, remember that oil markets are already planning for some sort of an attack. The U.S. is building up its strategic petroleum reserve as a way to try to counter that in the short term. Investors don't really expect Saddam Hussein to move on the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. There is a fear that he may be able to shoot chemical weapons at them, and the administration's planners are thinking about ways of trying to prevent that. But war's very risky. The question is whether we're better off with him [Saddam] or without, and I think we're better off without him.

Saudi Arabia's King Fahd is ill and there are inevitable questions about his successor. How could this affect the region?

The Saudi succession is always something that we watch. The House of Saud has successfully weathered two succession crises in the past. The succession struggles have been going on since King Fahd has been sick, but I think it's fairly clear that [Crown Prince] Abdullah is the next king, and after that it's pretty clear for the next several years who's coming next. There are a lot of regimes in the Middle East that are a lot more fragile than Saudi Arabia.

There are many outside the United States who believe that George W. Bush wants to go to war against Iraq to bolster his domestic support.

It's nonsense, for two reasons. It may have negative effects on the economy. But more importantly for this administration, in 1998 a number of prominent Republicans and Democrats signed a letter to the president arguing for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They were very angry that President Clinton wasn't doing enough about it. When they came to power, this continued to be something that they wanted to see. Signers of that letter were put into very prominent positions. This [invasion prospect] has always been on the cards; I think September 11 actually distracted them.

How much of the administration's policy is influenced by President Bush's personal history-to fulfill his father's desire of ousting Saddam?

I'm sure he wants to finish the job his father started. But he's got a lot of smart, savvy people around him who've been in this for a long time. There are a lot of people who were in the last [Bush] administration who feel that there's a job that needs to be finished. They came to power certainly believing it.

How divided are key administration figures on the questions of going to war?

My sense on Colin Powell is that before he became secretary of State he actually thought deterrence worked, and we wouldn't necessarily have to charge hard in Iraq. The role he played in Bush I was to make sure all options other than military were explored, so I'm sure he's playing that role strongly [now]. The military [also] seems to be very concerned about this kind of operation. There seems to be a confluence of views between Powell and the military on this. Then there's the hawks, [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz who are arguing hard for it. [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld is a supporter, although he's hearing a lot of concerns from the military lately.

Is there still a chance of a diplomatic solution? What if Saddam said he'd let weapons inspectors back into Iraq tomorrow?

I don't think it's a question of whether or not there'll be a diplomatic solution. The question is whether or not the administration decides they have the stomach for it. Nobody seriously believes that the weapons inspectors will be allowed to do anything. There's no diplomatic [outcome] that I can conceive of where anyone would feel the problem was being solved. It's just a question of whether you want to ignore the problem or deal with it.

How effective are the sanctions against Iraq?

Sanctions have been very important. They've kept Saddam Hussein from rebuilding his conventional military. [But] they've had a disastrous effect on the Iraqi people, and [if] we could put in a regime where we could actually lift a lot of these sanctions the Iraqi people would be better off. The plight of the Iraqi people has been completely lost in this. Their plight is just disastrous. The administration should be selling this as one of the reasons we're concerned, that what's going on in Iraq is morally reprehensible.

Only Britain has indicated it may support a war against Iraq. Who else is likely to back the United States?

The administration has done a terrible job in terms of getting allies and partners on board. They've spent the bulk of the time leaking their military plans, but they've done nothing in the two years since they've gotten into power on the diplomatic side of things. [Meanwhile] Saddam Hussein has been active on the diplomatic circuit. He's done everything he can to give the Saudis, the Turks, the Jordanians, a vested interest in the current situation. We've done very little in giving them a vested interest in a possible future situation.

Are Washington's post-9-11 alliances at risk if the United States goes to war without support from its allies.

We have a confluence of interests that I don't think will change, because we're doing things that are in our and our partners' best interests. I find it hard to believe that [countries like] the Philippines will stop cooperating with us in the war on terrorism if there's a war on Iraq. They're cooperating with us not because they're doing us a favor, but because it's in their interests to do it. The same goes for Pakistan.

Iraqi opposition groups are coming to Washington this month to meet with administration leaders. Is there a viable successor to Saddam among them?

Unlikely. The administration is doing the right thing continuing to talk to the opposition, both to give pause to Saddam Hussein and to try to figure out what the day after [an ouster] would look like. More attention to the day after would help bring over partners and allies. If we could conceive of a day after which the Saudis would find in their interests, they may be more helpful. If we could convince our partners that we're not going to let Iraq fracture, they would have an easier time supporting us.

What should that day after look like?

It will depend on a whole lot of issues. But we want to make sure we have some sort of accommodation with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to convince them that Iraq doesn't fall apart. Everybody's looking at what we're doing in Afghanistan-the fact that we can't cooperate with the Iranians around that is problematic. The fact that we don't really have a serious peacekeeping force in Afghanistan is [also] problematic. That means the warlords are gaining power. It's easy to see that happening in Iraq [as well]. We really have to think about things like that. What kind of peacekeeping force? For how long? Who would be part of it? Who gets the oil concessions? What role for the Iraqis? What happens if you do get a Sunni colonel from the center with blood on his hands who seems to have support. Would we go with him? They're hypothetical, but those are questions we should be regularly talking with Europeans, with Asians, with Middle Easterners. They're desperately afraid of the day after, for very good reason. They need to understand that we're hearing their concerns and we're doing the best we can to address them.