An increasingly contentious debate is underway within the Bush administration over how to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with the civilian leadership pushing for innovative solutions using smaller numbers of troops and military planners repeatedly responding with more cautious approaches that would employ far larger forces.
Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are pushing most forcefully for aggressively confronting Hussein, arguing that he presents a serious threat and that time is not on the side of the United States, according to several people involved in the closely held discussions.
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Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet are asking skeptical questions about a military campaign, especially about the aftermath of what most in the administration assume would be a fairly swift victory, according to those taking part in the deliberations.
Much of the senior uniformed military, with the notable exception of some top Air Force and Marine generals, opposes going to war anytime soon, a stance that is provoking frustration among civilian officials in the Pentagon and in the White House. In addition, some suspect that Powell's stance has produced an unusual alliance between the State Department and the uniformed side of the Pentagon, elements of the government that more often seem to oppose each other in foreign policy debates.
What is not being debated, officials said, is the ultimate goal of removing Hussein from power, an outcome that President Bush has repeatedly said he is determined to pursue. But how to do that still has not been decided. Officials stressed that the administration is still early in the process of discussing a variety of approaches to attacking Iraq and that no formal plan has been put before the president.
Some top military officials argue that the policy of aggressive containment -- through "no-fly" zones, a naval enforcement of sanctions and the nearby presence of 20,000 U.S. military personnel -- has kept Hussein from becoming an immediate threat. Bush has also approved a covert operation to try to dislodge Hussein from power, working in part with Iraqi opposition groups. The questions being debated now, officials said, are whether to move against Hussein with overt military action and, if so, when and how.
The lack of answers to those questions is producing new stresses within the administration, some defense experts said. Two people involved in the debate -- one inside the Pentagon, one outside it -- said Cheney and others at the White House are growing concerned that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military leaders have fought Rumsfeld and other civilian hawks to a standstill. "I'm picking up a concern that people at the top of the Pentagon are overwhelmed," said one Republican foreign policy expert.
He and others interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition that their names not be used, citing an atmosphere in which information about planning on Iraq is being tightly held in the administration, especially at the Pentagon.
Making his case, Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that the situation with Hussein will not improve. "Over time, the economic sanctions weaken, the diplomatic effort seems to get a little tired, the progress that he's been able to make in proliferating the terrorist states all across the globe is a serious one," he said.
Rumsfeld said there are "differing views about what one ought to do" but that the relationship between the top civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon is close. "The discussions that take place, the process that's been established, have been working as well as I have ever seen," he said.
There are deep differences of opinion about how the debate is likely to end, even among people intimately involved in the process, officials said. Some think the military's concerns will put the brakes on those advocating a direct confrontation with Hussein, while others say the president has been so clear about his determination to remove the Iraqi president from power that he cannot back down.
One advocate of confronting Hussein said he worries that the determined opposition of senior military leaders ultimately will dissuade Bush. "You can't force things onto people who don't want to do it, and the three- and four-star Army generals don't want to do it," he said. "I think this will go back and forth, and back and forth, until it's time for Bush to run for reelection."
But several others predicted that the military's objections will be overridden. "I'm absolutely convinced the president will settle on a war plan that brings about regime change," the GOP foreign policy specialist said.
Ultimately, noted a senior administration official, "the military has limited influence in this administration."