By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 28, 2002; Page A01
Despite President Bush's repeated bellicose statements about Iraq,
many senior U.S. military officers contend that President Saddam
Hussein poses no immediate threat and that the United States should
continue its policy of containment rather than invade Iraq to force
a change of leadership in Baghdad.
The conclusion, which is based in part on intelligence assessments
of the state of Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons
programs and his missile delivery capabilities, is increasing tensions
in the administration over Iraqi policy.
The cautious approach -- held by some top generals and admirals
in the military establishment, including members of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff -- is shaping the administration's consideration of war
plans for Iraq, which are being drafted at the direction of Bush
and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The senior officers' position -- that the risks of dropping a successful
containment policy for a more aggressive military campaign are so
great that it would be unwise to do so -- was made clear in the
course of several interviews with officials inside and outside the
High-level civilians in the White House and Pentagon vehemently
disagree. They contend that Hussein is still acting aggressively,
is intimidating his neighbors and is eager to pursue weapons of
mass destruction and the means to deliver them.
These officials say time is not on the side of the United States.
"The whole question is, how long do you wait with Saddam Hussein
in possession of the capabilities he has and would like to have?"
said Richard N. Perle, head of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon
The uniformed military's skepticism would not stop Bush if he were
determined to attack Iraq, a White House aide said. "I assume
that if the president decides this is going to happen, they'll go
along with it," he said.
But the military leadership's insistence on airing its concerns
already appears to have had an effect. Despite the administration's
public rhetoric about Iraq, the view of officials interviewed at
the Pentagon in recent days is that there will be no action against
Iraq before next spring, and perhaps not even then. They argue that
the administration's goal of regime change may well be achieved
by Hussein falling into poor health or perhaps by CIA covert operations
aimed at toppling him.
By making their views known, the top brass also may bolster congressional
Democrats who are counseling a more cautious approach on Iraq. Sen.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations
Committee, has scheduled hearings beginning Wednesday on the administration's
The military's objections also indicate that while the U.S. government
is united about wanting Hussein out of power, it remains deeply
divided about how to achieve that goal. The military's support of
containment, and its concern about the possible negative consequences
of attacking Iraq, are shared by senior officials at the State Department
and the CIA, according to people familiar with interagency discussions.
One oddity of the containment policy is that the military at first
was uneasy with its open-ended, indeterminate nature. But over the
last decade, the military grew more comfortable with the policy
of restraining Iraq through "no-fly" zones, naval enforcement
of sanctions and the continuous presence of about 20,000 U.S. military
personnel near Iraq's borders.
Senior officers believe the policy has been more effective than
is generally recognized, officials said. As evidence, the top brass
said the approach has deterred Hussein from threatening his neighbors
and from backing terrorist organizations. They said it also has
prevented him from updating his military equipment.
Also, while Iraq unquestionably possesses chemical and biological
weapons, defense officials said the current U.S. intelligence assessment
is that it has few, if any, operational long-range missiles that
could be used to deliver those weapons to attack Israel or other
U.S. allies in the region. U.S. intelligence has concluded that
Iraq possesses perhaps as many as two dozen Scud "B" missiles
-- with a range of 400 miles -- that it managed to hide from international
inspectors, but that they are not assembled.
Officials said the officers contend that continuing a containment
policy is preferable to invading an Iraq that possesses an arsenal
of biological and chemical weapons. Another concern is that Iraq
could split up under a U.S. attack, potentially leading to chaos
and the creation of new anti-American regimes and terrorist sanctuaries
in the region.
Active-duty members of the military have not publicly questioned
the direction of Bush's Iraq policy, but in private some are very
doubtful about it.
"In my assessment, the whole containment-and-sanctions policy
has worked better than it's given credit for," said one defense
official sympathetic to the military argument. He noted that since
the Gulf War ended in 1991, Hussein has obtained some spare military
parts but has been unable to import new tanks, aircraft or missiles.
More than one officer interviewed questioned the president's motivation
for repeatedly calling for the ouster of Hussein. "I'm not
aware of any linkage to al Qaeda or terrorism," one general
involved in the Afghanistan war said, "so I have to wonder
if this has something to do with his father being targeted by Saddam,"
a reference to the U.S. government's belief that Iraqi agents plotted
to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush with a car bomb
during a 1993 visit to Kuwait.
Retired officers and experts who stay in touch with the top brass,
and are free to say what those on active duty cannot, are more outspoken
in supporting the containment policy and questioning the administration's
apparent determination to abandon it.
"I'd argue that containment is certainly a better approach
than either marching on Baghdad or destabilizing the Iraqi government
by killing Saddam," said retired Col. Richard Dunn III, a former
Army strategist. "It only has to work until something happens
to him -- he's either killed or dies."
Added Jim Cornette, a former Air Force biological warfare expert
who participated in Gulf War targeting of Iraqi weapons bunkers,
"We've bottled him up for 11 years, so we're doing okay. I
don't know the reason the administration is so focused on Iraq.
I'm very puzzled by it."
Supporters of containment said they expect the United States would
prevail quickly in any war, but in the course of the conflict would
face several challenges. The Joint Chiefs have used their discussions
of the war plan developed this spring, which calls for invading
Iraq from the south, north and west with about 225,000 troops, to
put before the administration their concerns about three major risks
• What to do about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, especially
its arsenal of biological weapons.
• How to engage in urban warfare in Baghdad, especially with
the large numbers of military and civilian casualties that such
a battle likely would cause.
• How to predict the costs of a post-victory occupation,
which presumably would require tens of thousands of U.S. troops,
not only to keep the peace and support the successor regime, but
also to prevent Iraq from breaking up.
A major goal of U.S. policy in a post-Hussein Iraq would be to
prevent the creation of an independent state in the heavily Shiite
south, or an independent Kurdish state in the north. To fulfill
U.S. promises to Turkey and Arab states that Iraq would remain whole,
a defense official said, "I think it is almost a certainty
that we'd wind up doing a campaign against the Kurds and Shiites."
That would represent a striking reversal of administration policy
of supporting the Kurds against Baghdad.
Also, officials worry, a large U.S. presence might antagonize Arab
public opinion as well as impose heavy financial and human costs
on the U.S. military, which already feels stretched by the war on
terrorism and peacekeeping commitments in the Balkans.
Advocates of an invasion of Iraq said they have several problems
with the military's outlook.
They said Hussein's potential for acquiring long-range missile
systems is greater than advocates of containment outline. Retired
Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney said, for example, that Hussein
may be able to smuggle in missiles from sympathetic Islamic extremists
Others contend Hussein could carry out a chemical or biological
weapons attack without missiles. "You don't have to have a
long-range missile necessarily to deliver a deadly weapon, especially
if it's powdered anthrax," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D.
Wolfowitz said recently.
Perle said it is foolish to believe that Hussein would use only
the conventional approaches he has used in the past. "Saddam
could decide at any time to hand anthrax to terrorists," he
As for the military's view that there is no evidence of an Iraqi
intent to work with terrorists to attack the United States, Perle
said, "That's the type of thinking that brought us to September
11th." It is "flat-out wrong" to think that there
are no links between Iraq and terrorist organizations, he said.
Perle said that, ultimately, U.S. policy on Iraq will be set by
civilians, and that it will be based on a different set of assumptions
than those of the uniformed armed services. "Whether he is
contained or not, that's a political question," Perle said.
What to do about Iraq essentially boils down to how much risk the
U.S. government is willing to take, he said, and "that's a
political judgment that these guys aren't competent to make."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company