Published on Wednesday, July 31, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
Congress Calling for Clarity on Iraq
Senate hearing comes after months of leaks on how the U.S. aims to oust Hussein. The conflicting scenarios have drawn criticism
by Paul Richter
WASHINGTON -- The war will involve 250,000 troops, or it could be just 70,000. They might attack Iraq from three sides, or they could largely finish the job with an assault on Baghdad.
Since President Bush announced months ago a determined but still-unformed plan to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, such diverse and contradictory reports have been filling an information vacuum and shaping public discussion.
Foreign policy experts say it is unprecedented for the U.S. government to air such vague and open-ended plans for war, and they predict that the leaks will remain central to the public discussion until the administration decides how to deal with Hussein and begins to talk more openly about it.
Now Congress, which has been largely on the sidelines, is looking for answers too.
Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opens hearings to raise such questions as the rationale and risks of a war, and how long the United States would need to remain as a steward for Iraq afterward. Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who has been pushing the administration to better "define its objectives" in Iraq, said Tuesday that he knew of no place "where there has been ... a thorough discussion of all these issues."
Another influential senator cautioned that it was precisely this kind of national debate that was missing as the United States began to deepen its involvement in Vietnam decades ago.
Questions about the administration's plans for Iraq have been increasingly urgent since Bush began signaling his determination to force a "regime change" in Iraq in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Although he has insisted that he has approved no war plan, he has laid the groundwork for military action in several speeches. He has said the United States would be justified in "preempting" dangerous regimes that threaten it with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Bush has also approved covert action against Hussein.
Polls have repeatedly indicated that Congress and the public support a new war on Iraq, at least as a general proposition. And in Washington political circles, many people are convinced that Bush is fully committed to a war, next year if not sooner.
Yet as the months have passed, the administration has remained internally divided. Some officials want to move faster than others, or use more ground forces, or rely more heavily on Iraqi opposition groups.
Administration officials have denounced insiders who are secretly releasing information to influence policy, and have called on the FBI to try to track them down.
"It's become a leak-driven debate," said Derek Chollet, a State Department official in the Clinton administration. "Every one that comes out kicks up new dust."
As the debate has continued, officials have insisted that there is nothing more they can say about their plans, because none have been made final.
"We don't know if the United States [will] exercise a military option with respect to Iraq," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters Tuesday. He insisted that the administration has several possible approaches to removing Hussein, including "diplomatic, economic and military" means.
At the same time, Rumsfeld seemed to reiterate the administration's desire for more aggressive action by insisting that Iraq is unlikely to agree to the kind of United Nations inspections that would uncover weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. allies are calling on the U.N. to exhaust efforts at weapons inspections before any military action would be undertaken. Rumsfeld was suggesting that would be a waste of time.
"It's difficult to comprehend--even to begin to think--that they would accept such [an inspection] regime," he said.
Another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said recently that he believed the leaked war-planning documents that have appeared in news reports have come from middle- or upper-middle-level officials, some of whom were in remote government planning offices. But he said none of the proposals had gotten so far as to receive a vote from top-level officials.
In addition to the varying numbers of U.S. troops and attack strategies championed by different camps in the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence communities, the leaks have reflected policy disagreements within the administration on even whether attacking Hussein is preferable to trying to contain him.
Lawmakers and experts have increasingly urged that these issues be discussed in public.
Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said that "given the magnitude and the importance of the task of trying to change the Iraqi leadership, there's been remarkably little debate on it."
That sentiment is increasingly shared by lawmakers of both parties, some of whom have been actively urging the administration to be more forthcoming on its intentions.
Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) has urged a national debate on the issue, noting that there was no such debate about Vietnam in the early 1960s.
Experts say there are risks for the administration if Americans don't fully understand what would be involved in a military campaign, especially one that risked widespread use of chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops.
If Americans discover that a war against Iraq is bloodier or more expensive than they expected, or requires a longer U.S. presence in Iraq, there could be a public backlash, the experts say.
Experts note, too, that the months of leaks will only make it harder for the administration to decide what to do, and then to sell the policy it has chosen to Americans and allied countries.
"Foreign policy by leak is never a good idea: You can't control the message, and your policy looks like it's in disarray," said Chollet, the former State Department official.
He predicted that it will be increasingly difficult for the administration to remain silent on its intentions as lawmakers and others in Washington debate the issues.
"I think the administration is going to be forced to say more," he said. "Otherwise they're going to be letting others shape the debate."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times