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[casi] The Debate Within

Here's an online copy of The Debate Within from the
New Yorker.

The objective is clear—topple Saddam. But how?
Issue of 2002-03-11
Posted 2002-03-04
After a year of bitter infighting, the Bush
Administration remains sharply divided about Iraq.
There is widespread agreement that Saddam Hussein must
be overthrown, but no agreement about how to get it
done. The President has given his feuding agencies a
deadline of April 15th to come up with a "coagulated
plan," as one senior State Department official put it,
for ending the regime. The President is expecting to
meet that month with Tony Blair, the British Prime
Minister, whose support for the Iraqi operation is
considered essential.

There is strong debate over how many American troops
would be needed, whether Baghdad should be immediately
targeted, which Iraqi opposition leader should be
installed as the interim leader, and—most
important—how the Iraqi military will respond to an
attack: Will it retreat, and even turn against Saddam?
Or will it stand and fight? There is also no certainty
about how Israel will respond if Saddam launches
weapons of mass destruction toward Tel Aviv and
Jerusalem—as many officials believe he will do, or try
to do, once an American invasion takes place.

The normal planning procedures have been marginalized,
according to many military and intelligence officials.
These usually include a series of careful preliminary
studies under the control of the National Security
Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But now there
is far less involvement by the Joint Chiefs and their
chairman, Air Force General Richard Myers. As one
senior Administration consultant put it, the
military's planning for Iraq is operating "under
V.F.R. direct"—that is, under visual flight rules, an
air-traffic controllers' term for proceeding with
minimal guidance.

The interagency dispute has, at times, become
personal. The Pentagon's conservative and highly
assertive civilian leadership, assembled by Paul
Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, has
extraordinary influence in George W. Bush's
Washington. These civilians have been the most
vigorous advocates for early action against Saddam
Hussein, arguing that his access to weapons of mass
destruction, and his proven willingness to use them,
make him a threat to world security. The leaders of
the State Department, who are more restrained in their
planning, accuse the Pentagon civilians of confusing
dissent with disloyalty; Pentagon officials, in turn,
accuse Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy,
Richard Armitage, of a loss of nerve. "It's the return
of the right-wing crazies, crawling their way back,"
one of Armitage's associates said, referring to
Wolfowitz's team. "The knives are out." One senior
State Department official angrily told me that he
would "meet them"—his "pissant" detractors in the
Pentagon—"anytime, anywhere." In return, one of those
detractors depicted the State Department's behavior as
"unbelievably personal and vitriolic. Their attitude
is that we're yahoos—especially those of us who come
from the far right. The American Enterprise
Institute"—a conservative think tank in Washington—"is
like Darth Vader's mother ship for them."

Senior State Department officials are said to be
particularly displeased with William Luti, the Deputy
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near East and South
Asian Affairs. Luti, a retired Navy captain and Gulf
War combat veteran who served on Vice-President Dick
Cheney's staff last summer, is seen by people at State
as so obsessed with an immediate overthrow of Saddam
that he hasn't thought through the consequences.
Luti's supporters, however, include Richard Perle, who
was an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan
Administration and now heads the Defense Policy Board,
a Pentagon advisory group. Perle was one of Bush's
early foreign-policy advisers in the Presidential
campaign, and his views, which reflect the thinking of
the Republican right, are taken seriously in

In previous Administrations, such interagency fights
were often resolved by the national-security adviser,
now Condoleezza Rice. But the National Security
Council has been weakened recently by a series of
resignations and reassignments, some of them said to
be the result of internal bickering. The N.S.C.
currently has no senior Iraq expert on its staff.
Bruce Riedel, the longtime ranking expert on the
Middle East, moved overseas recently on a sabbatical,
and the person who recently filled in as the N.S.C.'s
Iraq expert, an intelligence officer on loan from the
C.I.A., went back to the agency after only a few
months at the White House. A third regional expert
left the N.S.C. this winter after a series of policy
disputes with civilian officials in the Pentagon. With
no replacement in sight, a former official told me,
the N.S.C. has been forced to "farm out" papers on
important issues to the C.I.A. and the State

The difficulty in coördination, Administration
officials said, is apparent in some of the proposals
for Saddam's overthrow now being circulated. One plan
that has been enthusiastically endorsed by the
civilian leadership in the Pentagon, revolving around
a small, mobile attack force of Iraqi dissidents and
American Special Forces, and the declaration of an
interim government, was derided by a top State
Department official, who told me that it was little
more than "a concept." Another plan, proposed by the
C.I.A., which called for increased covert operations
against Saddam and continued diplomacy while issues of
invasion timing and force structure are worked out,
was debunked by a former C.I.A. station chief as
hardly different from the plans of the past decade.

The N.S.C.'s lack of high-level expertise on Iraq has
created a planning void which is now being filled by
retired Army General Wayne Downing, an expert on
special operations. President Bush brought Downing in
after September 11th as an adviser on combatting
terrorism. The General has also served as an ad-hoc
adviser to the Iraqi National Congress, the most
prominent Iraqi opposition group. Both Perle and Luti
argue that any move against Iraq should involve the
I.N.C. and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, who, with the
C.I.A., planned a coup attempt that failed against
Saddam in 1995.

Downing recently hired Linda Flohr, a
twenty-seven-year veteran of the C.I.A.'s clandestine
service who, after retiring in 1994—her last
assignment was for the top-secret Iraqi Operations
Group—went to work for the Rendon Group, a
public-relations firm that was retained by the C.I.A.
in 1991 to handle press issues related to the Iraqi
opposition, including Chalabi and the I.N.C. The firm,
headed by John Rendon, who once served as executive
director of the Democratic National Committee, was
paid close to a hundred million dollars by the C.I.A.
over the next five years, according to an I.N.C.
official. Last fall, the Rendon Group was retained by
the Defense Department to give advice on how to
counter what the government considered to be
"disinformation" about the American war effort in
Afghanistan. The firm was also retained by the
Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence, which was
eliminated last week after the Times reported that it
would provide foreign reporters with "news items,
possibly even false ones." (Rendon's contract with the
Pentagon was not cancelled, however.) Flohr also
worked for a private business—it manufactured
bulletproof vests—founded by Oliver North, the former
marine and Reagan Administration N.S.C. aide who was
fired for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

While the feuding continues in Washington, exile
groups supported by the I.N.C. have been conducting
sabotage operations inside Iraq, targeting oil
refineries and other installations. The latest attack
took place on January 23rd, an I.N.C. official told
me, when missiles fired by what he termed "indigenous
dissidents" struck the large Baiji refinery complex,
north of Baghdad, triggering a fire that blazed for
more than twelve hours. (The I.N.C. gets operating
funds from the United States under legislation passed
in 1998. Last fall, the State Department Inspector
General conducted a review into how the I.N.C. had
handled two recent grants, which totalled more than
four million dollars. The review found that the
I.N.C.'s accounting practices and internal controls
were inadequate, and raised questions about more than
two million dollars in expenses.)

A dispute over Chalabi's potential usefulness
preoccupies the bureaucracy, as the civilian
leadership in the Pentagon continues to insist that
only the I.N.C. can lead the opposition. At the same
time, a former Administration official told me,
"Everybody but the Pentagon and the office of the
Vice-President wants to ditch the I.N.C." The I.N.C.'s
critics note that Chalabi, despite years of effort and
millions of dollars in American aid, is intensely
unpopular today among many elements in Iraq. "If
Chalabi is the guy, there could be a civil war after
Saddam's overthrow," one former C.I.A. operative told
me. A former high-level Pentagon official added,
"There are some things that a President can't order
up, and an internal opposition is one. Show me a
Northern Alliance"—the opposition group in Afghanistan
that, with United States help, scored early victories
against the Taliban—"and then we can argue about what
it will cost to back it up."

The C.I.A. and the State Department are now
accelerating their efforts to forge a coalition of
former Iraqi military men and opposition groups, with
the goal of convincing the steadfast Chalabi
supporters that a new approach could work—without
I.N.C. involvement. The key participants, known to
some C.I.A. officials as the "gang of four," include
representatives from the fiercely anti-Saddam
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; its archrival, the
Kurdistan Democratic Party; the pro-Iran Supreme
Islamic Council for Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite
resistance group; and the Iraqi National Accord,
headed by Ayad Allawi, a doctor who left Iraq in the
seventies. The factions are now meeting regularly in
London, and the long-sought concept of a broad
opposition—without Chalabi—is "gaining mass," a former
C.I.A. operative said, in part because of what other
Iraqis see as Chalabi's arrogance and high-handedness.
"Chalabi has succeeded in galvanizing the opposition
against him," according to one intelligence official.

In recent months, Allawi and a number of former Iraqi
military officers have attended meetings—more like
auditions—with C.I.A. officials in various hotels in
suburban Virginia, and a large conference of Iraqi
exiles is planned for later this month in Washington.
The C.I.A.'s brightest prospect, officials told me, is
Nizar Khazraji, a former Iraqi Army chief of staff who
defected in the mid-nineties. As a Sunni and a former
combat general, Khazraji is viewed by the C.I.A. as
being far more acceptable to the Iraqi officer corps
than Chalabi, a Shiite who left Iraq in 1958. Chalabi
earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University
of Chicago and established a large bank in Jordan. He
has no formal military background. A former station
chief for the C.I.A. in the Middle East told me, "It
would be ridiculous to tie our wagon to Chalabi. He's
got no credibility in the region."

Chalabi and his allies have, in recent months,
endorsed what amounts to a public-relations campaign
against Khazraji, alleging that he was involved in a
war crime—the 1988 Iraqi gassing of a Kurdish town, a
claim Khazraji denies—and suggesting that he may be a
double agent. "There's a huge firestorm over Chalabi
that's preventing us from reaching out to the Iraqi
military," a former C.I.A. operative told me. "It's
mind-boggling for an outsider to understand the

More than five hundred thousand American soldiers took
part in the Gulf War, and, until recently, military
planners at the United States Central Command, or
CENTCOM, in Tampa, have insisted that at least six
combat divisions—roughly a hundred and fifty thousand
troops—would be needed for another invasion. CENTCOM's
current requirements remain classified, but, in an
article just published in Foreign Affairs, Kenneth
Pollack, the director of Persian Gulf affairs for the
N.S.C. during the Clinton Administration, provided the
following assessment:

Some light infantry will be required in case Saddam's
loyalists fight in Iraq's cities. Air-mobile forces
will be needed to seize Iraq's oil fields at the start
of hostilities and to occupy the sites from which
Saddam could launch missiles against Israel or Saudi
Arabia. And troops will have to be available for
occupation duties once the fighting is over. All told,
the force should total roughly two hundred thousand to
three hundred thousand people; for the invasion,
between four and six divisions plus supporting units,
and for the air campaign seven hundred to a thousand
aircraft and anywhere from one to five carrier battle
groups. . . . Building up such a force in the Persian
Gulf would take three to five months, but the campaign
itself would take probably about a month, including
the opening air operations.

General Downing, however, believed even before going
to the White House that only a few hundred Americans
would be needed to train a small Iraqi opposition
force. The plan he helped draw up as a consultant to
Chalabi involved the seizure of an airfield and
adjacent areas in the south, near many of the nation's
rich oil fields; quick neutralization of the area's
élite Republican National Guard garrisons, the Army
units believed to be most loyal to the Iraqi leader;
and the establishment of a no-drive zone in the south.
The United States Air Force would also begin
systematically bombing key Iraqi command-and-control
facilities. In years past, Downing, who ran a Special
Forces command during the Gulf War, has criticized the
Pentagon for its elaborate planning and heavy-force
requirements, telling his I.N.C. colleagues that if
five thousand troops could do the job the Pentagon
would insist on at least five times as many.

The I.N.C. supporters in and around the
Administration, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard
Perle, believe, like Chalabi, that any show of force
would immediately trigger a revolt against Saddam
within Iraq, and that it would quickly expand. Perle
dismisses the widely publicized concerns expressed by
Iraq's regional neighbors, who expect prolonged civil
war and chaos if the Iraqi Army stands and fights.
"Arabs are like most people," Perle told me. "They
like winners, and will go with the winners all the

The key player in any discussion of troop needs is
Army General Tommy Franks, who, as the head of
CENTCOM, would likely be in charge of a war in
Iraq—just as he directs the increasingly difficult
operation in Afghanistan. So far, senior
Administration officials said, Franks is following in
the path of his predecessor, Marine General Anthony
Zinni, and insisting, despite pressure from civilians
in the Pentagon, on an intense and careful American
buildup in the region before Iraq can be attacked.
"Franks is hanging tough," one of Armitage's
associates told me. Marine Corps planners are depicted
as less sanguine than their counterparts in the other
armed services about the ability of a smaller American
force to topple the regime. "The Army and Air Force
are ready to go," Armitage's associate told me. "So
it's 'Let's go work on the Marines.' The Marines are
digging in and are not going to go"—that is, not going
to lower estimates of the forces needed.

The renewed campaign against Saddam has inevitably
quieted those in Washington who believe that the Iraqi
Army will fight to the end. One recently retired
senior military officer, who drafted CENTCOM battle
studies with the Marine leadership, said, "We've got a
bunch of people involved who think it's going to be
easy. We're set up for a big surprise." A former
American ambassador in the Middle East said, "If we
have to have three months of bombing, with civilian
casualties, we'll have real problems with the Arab
world." Scott Ritter, the former marine who led U.N.
inspection teams into Iraq during the nineties,
predicted that the Iraqi Army would respond to an
invasion by dispersing into villages and towns
throughout the countryside. In that case, Ritter
asked, "What will we do? Flatten the towns?"

Chalabi and his Pentagon supporters have been telling
journalists that an attack could come as early as this
spring. Any objections from France and Russia,
Saddam's major oil-trading partners, would be
assuaged, a senior I.N.C. official told me, by
assurances that they would be given access to the
extraordinarily rich oil fields in southern Iraq.
Chalabi has been in contact with American oil
companies, the official added, in an effort to insure
that the fields get into quick production and provide
a source of revenue for the new interim government
that the I.N.C. hopes to lead. The French and Russian
oil companies "would have to go as junior partners to

A senior State Department official emphatically denied
the possibility that an attack on Saddam's regime
could come so soon. "The President has a time line,
but it doesn't fit what those boys tell you. The last
thing we want to do is hit Baghdad and have Al Qaeda
hit Chicago. We'd look real bad." The official added,
"When we go to Iraq, we will do it right. There's a
before and after, and we want to get the after right."
A high-ranking intelligence official similarly noted,
referring to Afghanistan, "We aren't done where we are
now, and we got plenty to do where we are without
biting off something else." A former intelligence
official put the issue more vividly. "We're a powerful
boa constrictor, and we're now squeezing out these
terrorists," he said. "Let's digest these rats we've
swallowed before we get another one."

Another timing factor has little to do with the
bureaucratic bickering: the Washington Post last week
quoted Pentagon planners as saying that it would take
six months to produce enough precision guidance
systems—the key to America's smart bombs— to sustain a
full-scale invasion of Iraq. By midsummer, there will
be added political pressure from the Germans, who are
expected to urge the White House to do nothing in Iraq
until after their national elections, in late
September. One Iraqi expert said he believes that the
government-wide debate over Iraq will be greatly
influenced this fall by White House domestic-policy
advisers like Karl Rove, who will urge the President
not to invade Iraq—as the congressional elections
approach—and "to focus instead on domestic politics,
as his father did not."

The ostensible theme of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon's official visit to Washington in early
February was the Palestinian conflict, but there was
an important private agenda for the White House:
briefing Israel about the President's determination to
overthrow Saddam and persuading its leadership to
delay a response, as it did during the 1991 Gulf War,
in the event of an Iraqi Scud-missile attack. Israel
is within range of Scuds coming from western Iraq.
Thirty-nine Scuds struck Israel in 1991; despite
extensive air and ground searches by United States
military commanders, and despite repeated public
assurances to the contrary, there's no evidence that
American Special Forces troops were able to find and
destroy any mobile Scud launchers in the Gulf War.

During Sharon's visit, American and Israeli officials
told me, the Prime Minister and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer,
the Israeli Defense Minister, reached an understanding
with Washington on advance notice of any impending
invasion, and also urged that the Bush Administration
do what was necessary—placing a large number of troops
on the ground in western Iraq, for example—in order to
destroy potential Scud-launching sites at the outset
of an attack.

But the Israeli leaders refused to give the White
House an assurance that it would not retaliate. A
senior Israeli official told me, "We basically said
that the United States should assume, in its
considerations, that if Israel is to be hit, Israel
will hit back. We took a hit in 1991 and did not hit
back because we could have ruined the United
States-Arab coalition. Our lack of retaliation was
seen in the West as very smart, but in the Arab world
it had a serious negative effect on Israel's
deterrence posture. If someone thinks it can hit
Israel and not be hit ten times as strongly back, it
is a serious issue. It won't happen again. Our message
is clear—if a Scud hits Tel Aviv with a dirty warhead
and you have dozens of people killed, does anyone
really expect Israel to sit there? Will they dare ask
us not to respond?"

In the talks, the Bush Administration made it known
that it anticipated that the Iraqi leadership would
arm its mobile Scuds with biological and chemical
warheads. "No one discounts the possibility of
biological warfare," the Israeli official said, "but
we believe it is more likely to be delivered by Iraqi
aircraft, and not Scuds, and therefore is not as much
of a threat. No Iraqi aircraft reached Israel in 1991,
and Saddam does not have as much as he did then—and
we're a lot better in anti-aircraft defenses."
However, he added, "If Saddam believes that a regime
change is the goal of an American invasion, and he is
the target, it's all for broke."

One of Richard Armitage's associates described the
threat to Israel, and Israel's ability to
counterattack, as factors that cannot be dismissed,
given Israel's known nuclear capability: "If Saddam
goes against Israel big time and they come on our side
big time, we've got the whole Arab-speaking world
against us, instead of just Muslim terrorists."

Richard Perle took issue with the Israeli concern
about an Iraqi bombardment. Because of the strong
likelihood of devastating retaliation by Israel, he
argued, Saddam would consider attacking only if his
options ran out. "The doomsday scenario is that in
desperation Saddam sends weapons of mass destruction
toward Israel," Perle told me. "If you assume it's a
desperation move, you have to ask yourself to what
extent will Saddam's maniacal orders be carried
out"—presuming that Iraqi troops and citizens,
encouraged by the American attacks and bombing, would
rebel against the leadership. "If you get that order
and you're managing a Scud unit, do you carry it out?
If you do, you're hanged or you're dead. By the time
Saddam does that"—order the attack on Israel—"he's
done anyway.

"Nobody's going to say that it's without risk," Perle
added, referring to a United States attack. "From
Israel's point of view, are they going to get safer in
time?"—as Iraq continues to develop its weapons of
mass destruction. "If the Israeli leadership is
already deterred by what Saddam threatens now, what
happens when he gets nuclear weapons?" Echoing the
view of Wolfowitz and many of his colleagues in the
Pentagon, Perle said, "The moment Saddam is challenged
effectively, he's history."

A senior I.N.C. official said that earlier versions of
its invasion plan, as endorsed by Downing, did not
call for a direct military assault on Baghdad, but
proposed quick-strike attacks on military units in the
north and primarily in the south. In this scenario,
Saddam would not feel pressured to escalate
immediately and order an all-out attack on Israel, the
official said. "We want to leave him room in the
center of the country, to give him reasons not to use
biological weapons on Israel." (One Israeli who has
reviewed the plan described it as leaving Saddam with
the option of staying in "a sliver of land" or risk
moving to the north or the south with his Army, thus
exposing the forces to American airpower.) "Baghdad
will erupt," the I.N.C. official predicted, "and so he
will go to his bolt hole at Tikrit"—Saddam's home
town, northwest of Baghdad, and the site of one of his
military complexes. "The possibility of survival will
be an incentive for him not to use chemical or
biological weapons," the I.N.C. official said. "The
fall of Baghdad is the result, not the plan."

In May, the President has a summit meeting in Russia,
and later that month the United Nations will review
economic sanctions against Iraq. The new "smart"
sanctions sought by the Bush Administration would make
it harder for Iraq to buy dual-use goods—materials
with both civil and military functions—but permit more
medicine and other needed materials to flow into Iraq,
easing the strain on the population. The United
Nations will also consider a renewal of the
oil-for-food program, with the prospect that Iraq will
find it easier to purchase humanitarian goods. At any
time, of course, the sanctions could be dropped if
Iraq first accepted a renewal of United Nations
inspections of its suspected nuclear, chemical, and
biological weapons sites. The American plan, officials
agreed, is to make so many demands—complete access to
palaces, for example—that it will be almost impossible
for Saddam to agree. The Europeans, especially the
French, are known to be trying to persuade Saddam to
"open up," as a senior Administration consultant put
it, to another U.N. inspection plan and "not give the
United States an excuse to bomb."

By June, a Presidential decision on how to proceed
against Saddam should have been made. But there are
some Administration supporters who see little evidence
of long-range thinking. "The central American premise
is that you deal with Iraq and everything else will
fall in place," said Geoffrey Kemp, the N.S.C.'s
ranking expert on the Near East in the first Reagan
Administration, who, as director of Regional Strategic
Programs at the Nixon Center, has been examining
options for the Middle East after Saddam. "Syria comes
to terms. The Saudis will conform. Iran will be
surrounded by American forces, and the mullahs will
have to make concessions to the moderates. There will
be a settlement between Israel and Palestine. The end
of Saddam will lead to an economic renaissance in
Iraq. I'd say fantastic—if it happens.

"Whatever happens," Kemp went on, "Bush cannot afford
to fail. At the end of the day, we must have a stable,
pro-Western government in Baghdad. But it's important
also that you look at the worst case. One nightmare
would be that Saddam used weapons of mass destruction
against Israel and you'd end up with a U.S.-Israeli
war against Iraq. No one knows how much it will cost.
You could have an interruption in oil supplies.
Meanwhile, you've still got Afghanistan. The whole
purpose of going in is to cleanse Iraq of all weapons
of mass-destruction capability. If Saddam is gone and
his sons dispatched, you will still need two things:
complete coöperation of whoever is running the show
and inspection teams to cleanse every bedroom and
every crevice in the palaces. Iraq is a proud country
that has been humiliated, and it's madness to think
that these people, while hating Saddam, are in love
with the United States. Latent nationalism will
emerge, and there will be those who want to hold on to
whatever weapons they've held back. The danger is that
these capabilities could pop up somewhere else—in
control of some small Army group with its own agenda."

This week, Vice-President Cheney leaves for an
extended trip to the Middle East—where a significant
and largely unpublicized buildup of American military
forces is already under way. Officially, the Pentagon
says that about five thousand American troops are
stationed in Kuwait, but a senior Administration
consultant told me that by mid-February there were, in
fact, many times that number on duty there, along with
an extensive offshore Navy presence. The military
buildup, intelligence officials explained, is designed
to protect Kuwait and other allied nations in the Gulf
in case Saddam chooses to strike first.

The President's "axis of evil" language in the State
of the Union Message and the steadily expanding
American arsenal have prompted many anxious diplomatic
inquiries in recent weeks from the Middle East and
Europe. One of Cheney's goals will be to explain the
U.S. position to allies and attempt to build a
coalition for another invasion of Iraq—a daunting
task, in the view of many inside and outside the
government. The only likely ally at this point is Tony
Blair's Britain.

With regard to the attack on Iraq, not everyone on the
inside is sure that the President can get what he
wants: a successful overthrow with few American
casualties and a new, pro-Western regime. "We've got a
great way to get it started," a former intelligence
official said. "But how do we finish it?" As for
Bush's eagerness to get rid of Saddam, he said, "It's
a snowball rolling downhill, gaining momentum on its
own. It's getting bigger and bigger, but nobody knows
what they're going to do."

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