President Bush has organized a massive international campaign against Saddam Hussein of Iraq, but after eight weeks the administration remains highly uncertain about whether the Persian Gulf crisis will be resolved peaceably or lead to war, according to administration officials.
In a series of interviews, high-ranking policy makers, senior military officials and others said they have plenty of ideas but can offer no single endgame scenario with confidence. Members of Congress, foreign diplomats and others outside the administration have begun to discuss the enormous practical and political risks to Bush's presidency if the current crisis becomes a desert conflagration.
By creating an international front against the Iraqi president through the United Nations, and by deploying a massive military force in Saudi Arabia, the administration appears to be pointing toward two possible outcomes. One is that Saddam backs down in the face of global pressure, but no one knows how long that will take, or how difficult it would be. The other is that the United States and the multinational force engage Saddam's armed forces in what could be a bloody and destructive conflict.
Both scenarios are fraught with uncertainty. The support of the American people for military deployments abroad, and of the Arab coalition arrayed against Saddam, may wane. Some members of Congress and European diplomats said in interviews that armed conflict could rapidly erode the delicate overseas alliances and domestic support that Bush has enjoyed so far.
But Saddam shows no signs of retreating any time soon, and the prospect of war looms larger. Some U.S. officials said there are indications Bush is preparing the country for possible military action, including the warning on Friday that the dismantling of Kuwait has shortened the timetable for sanctions to work. Military commanders are telling the administration that while air power is ready in the region, they need more time to get the critical armored ground forces in place in Saudi Arabia, but the point at which they will be ready for offensive operations is just weeks away.
Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who has urged Bush to compromise with Congress on the War Powers Resolution to create a consenus on the deployments, cautioned that political pressures could rapidly turn against the White House if conflict breaks out.
"There's kind of a loose consensus" now, Cohen said, "but you can see it start to fray on the edges. The longer this goes on, the more doubts that are going to be expressed: Is this really blood for oil? You mean we don't have a democracy in Kuwait? How about free elections and what about Saudi Arabia?
"The last thing you want to do is have a policy that becomes muddled," he said. "People will become divided. And your fighting men will become repudiated when they return. That's what happened in Vietnam, and we said no more. We want the consensus before you go over."
Cohen recalled that when he returned from Saudi Arabia Sept. 4, he went to the White House and displayed for Bush a newspaper photo of a Marine being carried out of the desert.
Cohen said he told the president that if the trooper had been the casualty of a shooting war, rather than an accident victim, the political support Bush enjoys would soon evaporate.
For now, the administration is committed to a strategy of trying to keep the pressure on Saddam with new diplomatic maneuvers -- almost daily -- to highlight his international isolation.
Last week, this strategy received a major boost with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's address to the United Nations, in which he warned that Moscow may ultimately acquiesce in some kind of military effort to reverse Iraq's aggression.
Only a few weeks ago, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev steered clear of military action in his remarks at the Helsinki Summit with Bush.
But Shevardnadze declared that "the United Nations has the power to 'suppress acts of aggression.' There is ample evidence that this right can be exercised. It will be, if the illegal occupation of Kuwait continues." He reiterated that position yesterday in an interview taped by NBC's "Meet the Press."
Despite the symbolism of superpower cooperation, many senior U.S. policymakers said they do not know if it has any effect on Saddam's behavior or thinking. Instead, they just keep applying the pressure. "All we have are scenarios," a senior State Department official said.
Another official accompanying Secretary of State James A. Baker III at the United Nations last week was asked by reporters if there are any signs of the pressure having an effect on Saddam. "I can't point to anything at this time," the official said. "But there is a pattern of Saddam Hussein swinging back and forth, and being all over the map. I think that bespeaks a certain desperation."
For a diplomatic solution to the crisis, Bush has said there must be a complete and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal, release of hostages and restoration of the legitimate government of Kuwait, as spelled out in the U.N. resolutions.
The bottom line of this approach, officials said, is that Saddam cannot be rewarded in any fashion for his aggression, even with a symbolic concession.
But at the same time, officials made clear that if Saddam took a giant step toward this outcome by pulling out of Kuwait and releasing the foreigners held as hostages in Iraq, the other demands could be negotiated later. For example, although the administration supports restoration of the Kuwaiti government, it has no long-term commitment to support a monarchy there.
For now, however, the administration is not considering possible negotiated solutions, such as that proposed last week by French President Francois Mitterrand. Instead, U.S. officials hope to keep up the pressure and force Saddam to make the first move.
Some officials think this move may come in an offer to negotiate with Saudi Arabia or other Arab states in the next few months. Such an offer would be tempting for Saddam's neighbors and could seriously undermine the U.S. approach of refusing to reward Saddam. But officials said they expect Saddam will not make such a gesture until after he has tried to find cracks in the international coalition against him -- and that could take much longer, perhaps into November.
Cohen offered another diplomatic scenario. He suggested that Gorbachev take a lead role in mediating the crisis because of the long-standing Soviet relationship with Iraq and Moscow's ties to the Arab world. "If Saddam Hussein were sensible about this, he would make a trip to Mecca, called Moscow, and he would say to his chief supporter over the years, 'Big Mike, Old Gorby,' I want to talk to you about this." According to Cohen, Saddam would then weaken the resolve of the international coalition, and perhaps could use the Soviets to negotiate concessions. "We are at a great disadvantage if he were to do that," Cohen said, adding that it would be "the easiest way for him to prevail." Even as the United States tries to maintain diplomatic pressure on Saddam, the military options are never out of sight. Baker has said privately that he wants to try to exhaust all possible diplomatic pressure points to get Saddam to retreat before Bush faces a decision about combat.
The possibility of military action could destroy any hopes for a long-term U.S. role in the region. Although Baker has talked in recent weeks of setting up a new "regional security structure" in the Persian Gulf after this crisis is resolved, and of leading an effort to deny Saddam weapons of mass destruction, any hopes for such a cooperative regional effort could be shattered by a war that might stir deep resentment toward Americans.
Moreover, one of the big uncertainties for which administration officials have few ready answers is what kind of leadership Iraq might have after a war and who might succeed Saddam if he were toppled. Even if Saddam remains in power and retreats from Kuwait, it may be difficult to force him to accept Western efforts to dismantle his chemical weapons facilities and block his quest for nuclear arms.
But there continue to be strong signs that the White House is laying the groundwork for military action, if necessary. On Sept. 21, Bush met with key members of Congress for what turned into a long and sobering discussion about the situation in the gulf. On the way out of the White House, one senator turned to several colleagues and asked, "Is this the briefing that's pointed to later as the one where they said we told the congressional leaders there's going to be shooting?" The response was yes.
According to participants, Bush talked about the kinds of events other than an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia that could trigger a war. He was particularly concerned about the destruction of Kuwait by Iraq. He also talked about terrorism and the threat to Americans.
"He laid out a number of areas that might trigger shooting, other than just an invasion," said one official who attended. "But both in public and private, he wanted to avoid being so specific" about possible events that could bring hostilities "because there is a temptation for Saddam Hussein to go just up to the line and not to go over it."
Bush "wants ambiguity," this official said. "But he made it very clear that there's a lot more than just the invasion of Saudi Arabia that might do it."
The lawmakers gave Bush some markers that they consider crucial to maintaining public support if the confrontation turns into combat. According to one participant, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told Bush it was essential that any military action include troops from other nations at the front lines.
The lawmakers said this would be important to demonstrate to the Moslem world that it would not be the United States unilaterally attacking Arabs and Moslems, and to show the American people that other countries are sharing in the fight, which may cost thousands of lives.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said Bush gave congressional leaders the clear sense that the administration was "looking more favorably on an early war option." Aspin said last week, "There are several things pushing to an early war, before the first of the year."
He cited the dismantling of Kuwait, the June annual pilgrimage of millions of Moslems to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and a military that will be fully in place by mid-November with growing concerns over "losing their edge."
At the same time, military leaders in the Middle East have urged the administration to avoid conflict at least until the full combat force has been assembled in Saudi Arabia. While virtually all the air power and Marine forces needed for defensive and offensive missions have arrived in the region, a large percentage of the military's critical armored ground forces still have not arrived in Saudi Arabia. Only one of the three heavy armored Army divisions ordered to Saudi Arabia has reached the kingdom, and it has encountered major organizational and terrain problems in establishing desert positions.
About 160,000 of the expected 200,000 U.S. forces ordered to the region have now reached the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf area. The buildup includes a Marine amphibious assault force off the Kuwaiti coast, the battleship USS Wisconsin with its 16-inch guns and Tomahawk cruise missiles and the air armada of the aircraft carrier USS Independence.
Almost every available airfield in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and United Arab Emirates is crammed with U.S. fighter jets, attack planes and transport aircraft.
Most units have been practicing offensive operations and maneuvers since shortly after they arrived in the region, although commanders said there have been no orders for offensive operations against Iraqi forces. While many U.S. military leaders believe combat is inevitable, they are not eager to launch an attack that could result in the deaths of thousands men and women. "Any conflict out here will be ugly, brutal and bloody," one field commander said. Military leaders are hesitant to discuss potential casualty figures, citing the issue as "too emotional." They add that the number of dead and wounded will be closely linked to the type of combat waged.
If Iraq's forces can be dislodged with a storm of surgical air strikes, U.S. casualties may be kept to a few hundred or a few thousand. But if an intensive ground tank war breaks out, as many military commanders believe could occur, some authorities estimate the casualties could climb to 30,000 or more.
The U.S. military has assembled massive medical operations throughout the Arabian Peninsula with thousands of hospital beds and hundreds of surgical beds. The largest naval hospital in the world has been erected under 22 acres of tents at one major military facility, two massive naval hospital ships are in the region and hundreds of smaller unit medical teams have been dispersed. Mortuary teams have also been sent to the region.
Staff writers Dan Balz, George C. Wilson and Molly Moore contributed to this report.