Members of Congress visiting Saudi Arabia and talking about the threat of real war in the Persian Gulf were flabbergasted last Sunday when King Fahd told them that if sanctions and negotiations don't get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, "then force, of course, will have to be used."
Similarly hawkish views were also heard in Cairo and Damascus by traveling American lawmakers. The rapid U.S. military buildup in the Saudi desert following Iraq's annexation of Kuwait has transformed the political leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria into bellicose Saddam haters. Unlikely hawks in a twilight war, they thirst to punish Iraq's strongman.
That poses a problem for President Bush. He does not want to be pressured into military adventures that, if gone awry, could wreck his presidency. But having rushed 100,000 American fighters to the front, backed by the most sophisticated array of super-weapons ever placed on a battlefield, the president may have trouble controlling hawks in his military alliance who a month ago he thought would be restraining him.
For decades, suspicious Saudi Arabia avoided publicizing military contacts with the United States, always viewed as "foreign" and thus to be kept "over the horizon." King Fahd's remarks to the visiting congressional delegation suggest that the Saudi psyche has been transformed overnight from an extreme of xenophobic caution into an easy acceptance of inter-Arab war.
In Damascus, the shift from U.S. hater to U.S. ally is only slightly less dramatic, based on President Hafez Assad's hatred of Saddam Hussein. For Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, the keystone of America's new military alliance with anti-Saddam Arabs, risking war against another Arab state is more understandable, particularly considering the rewards flooding to Cairo from George Bush. The desire to strike against Baghdad is fueled by Saddam's call Wednesday urging the people of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to overthrow Mubarak and Fahd.
For all of Saddam's threats, the Saudis have put away their worry beads. Bush and his military policy-makers (led by Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) find themselves counseling patience to Saudi hawks, in person and over Bush's ever-cradled telephone.
The Saudis whisper to Bush and his agents what can be done once U.S. forces are in place. They say Saddam Hussein's command centers and communications, his air bases, offensive missiles and antiaircraft emplacements can be destroyed by U.S. and Saudi air power in a matter of hours.
They are laying out persuasive arguments that Saddam Hussein's army is not what it's cracked up to be. Instead of a million men, they say its effective force is between 200,000 and 300,000. Instead of the 5,100 tanks the United States believes it has, the Saudis insist the effective force is no more than 1,000 late-model T-72s. As for air, Saudi experts say that Iraq can put only 120 MiG-29 and Mirage fighters in the air, with the rest of its force not worth much.
Saudi specialists see Iraq's offensive aircraft and ground-launched missiles neutralized by American and Saudi bombing; its anti-air missiles and command centers smashed by sea-launched cruise missiles. Once the skies over the desert are cleared, Iraqi tanks can be systematically destroyed by U.S. aircraft. That would open the way for allied tanks and infantry (almost wholly American) to clear out Kuwait, driving Saddam's forces back toward Iraq or isolating them.
"They will panic," one Saudi official has advised Bush administration aides. "Without communications, how will they know what to do?"
U.S. officials have been privately told that morale inside Saddam's army is so low that between 150 and 200 Iraqi troops, at least one with an armored personnel carrier, have defected to Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh last Sunday, a member of the congressional delegation was advised that among the defectors was one brigadier general.
Instead of these tidings giving cheer to George Bush, they are reinforcing his native caution, acting as a brake. "The president wants to sit on the embargo and the blockade he has worked so hard to put in place," an administration insider told us.
How long? Answers vary, but three to six months is an accurate bracket as of today. His immediate next step: tighten the embargo and give Saddam plenty of room to fall.
That may not be acceptable to the Saudi hawks who own the turf where American power now sits. They want Saddam "taken out" soon. That pressure, coupled with notoriously short American patience for a long watch-and-wait, confronts Bush with a political challenge once he completes his exemplary military buildup.