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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
He predicted that it will be increasingly difficult for the administration
to remain silent on its intentions as lawmakers and others in Washington debate
"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