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Bush decisions on Iraq must be timely

The latest word out of Iraq is that even though the government has ordered gasoline rationing, food is readily available and the country can hold out another year or more despite the worldwide economic sanctions against it. This may be good news for the average Iraqi and the country's leader, Saddam Hussein, but it's exceedingly bad news for those in the West who had hoped the United Nations' trade embargo would force Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait without a shot being fired.

If indeed it's true that the American-led sanctions campaign isn't doing the job as well as expected, then President Bush and his advisers are going to have to make some very tough decisions in the next few weeks. Those decisions will inevitably turn on whether to make the sanctions against Iraq tighter than they already are, if that's possible, or to gear up for military action.

About the only thing Bush and his advisers seem to be ruling out, at least for now, is a negotiated settlement that would leave the Iraqi leader in better shape than before his army invaded Kuwait Aug. 2. If the president holds firm, that means you can forget about the various ideas floating around for a partial Iraqi withdrawal in which Baghdad would retain control of a small part of its captured Kuwaiti territory.

The prediction that Iraq could hold out as much as a year to a year-and-a-half despite the embargo came this past week from what the major television networks described as "senior intelligence officials." The assessment was in line with reports from Iraq that while bread, milk, sugar and cooking oil were being rationed as early as a month ago, supplies were more than adequate for all other major food categories, including meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.

The Associated Press quoted an Asian diplomat in Baghdad as saying that even without any sanctions busting, Iraq would be able to get through the winter and easily survive on the food it has until its next wheat crop is ready for harvest in about five months.

And in announcing the gasoline rationing Friday, Iraqi Oil Minister Issam Chalabi said the measure was taken in part to maintain enough refining capacity to supply the country's 1-million man army. Though Chalabi didn't spell it out, the implication was that Iraq's 15-million civilians will have to put up with the inconvenience of gasoline rationing whether they like it or not.

That implication _ Saddam Hussein's ability to decree what Iraq's population will endure _ is what makes his situation so different from that of George Bush.

The president of the United States may be the most powerful person in the world, but he can't tell the American people what they have to put up with or how long they have to do it. Only two-and-a-half months after the U.S. troops deployment began, there are already signs that the American people are having second thoughts about sending more than 200,000 young men and women to the Persian Gulf. The anti-war demonstrations in cities across the country on Saturday were only the beginning of a movement that will likely gain momentum every day American soldiers stay in the region.

Experienced Middle East analysts such as Richard Helms, the former CIA chief, predict that Bush is rapidly running out of time during which he can sit back and let economic sanctions and the mere threat of military action do all his work for him.

"We don't have unlimited time," Helms said on Friday when asked how long the president can hold off making a major decision on America's next step. "Starting about Thanksgiving time, it's going to get increasingly difficult."

Helms also noted in a television interview that in addition to the erosion of Bush's support at home, the remarkable international coalition he has brought together to oppose Iraq was not as solid as it might appear. Already, he said, France and the Soviet Union were positioning themselves to take a much softer line toward Baghdad than the United States.

Washington's hard line remains that Iraq must withdraw totally and unconditionally from all Kuwaiti territory it occupied in August and must allow restoration of the al-Sabah family that ruled Kuwait for the past two-and-a-half centuries. As the president reiterated on Friday, "Saddam Hussein's aggression (must) not be rewarded by some compromise. . ."

Speculation about a compromise deal was rampant this past week following reports from Iraq that Hussein had authorized the printing of new maps showing Kuwait divided into two sectors. One of the sectors is a narrow strip of territory bordering Iraq that includes the part of the Rumaila oil field as well as the small Gulf islands of Warba and Bubiyan that complicate access to Iraq's only large oil port, Umm Qasr. This is precisely the territory many analysts believe Hussein might settle for when he realizes that holding all of Kuwait will be impossible. Adding to the speculation that the Iraqi leader is preparing to give back most of Kuwait were reports that Iraqi troops were putting up concrete barriers and barbed wire fences to seal off the designated area near its border.

If anything short of war is likely to bust up the international coalition against Baghdad, it would be a partial Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. This would likely isolate Bush and his hard line in a very lonely corner and Saddam Hussein knows it. Even the vague and unsubstantiated hints about it from Iraq this past week were enough to put the administration on edge, send the Dow Jones average soaring and oil prices down.

Saddam Hussein will no doubt keep playing the theme of a partial settlement as long as possible to keep his opponents off balance. Helping him out most prominently in this effort have been King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But for the time being anyway, Bush's coalition against Iraq is holding firm and the buildup of allied military power in the Persian Gulf region is almost complete. This has triggered speculation _ much of it based on off-the-record briefings by the Pentagon's top generals _ that warfare could break out as early as next month.

One scenario has U.S. and allied warplanes, including B-52 strategic bombers, attacking Iraqi air bases, radar and missile installations around Nov. 18 when the moon is dark and America's electronic warfare advantage would be most telling. This would be followed up by massive air strikes against Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons facilities, armaments factories and the main highway south into Kuwait. Only after the allied air strikes had deprived Iraq of its most dangerous offensive abilities would ground assaults be unleashed against its entrenched troops in Kuwait.

The thinking behind this kind of scenario is that the first thing to be knocked out is Iraq's ability to deliver chemical or biological weapons by plane or missile or respond to allied air power. The next priority would be to eliminate its unconventional warfare facilities, especially the Tuwaitha Nuclear Center 20 miles southeast of Baghdad where at least 27 pounds of weapons-grade enriched uranium is known to be stored.

One problem with these pie-in-the-sky Pentagon war scenarios is that in the heat of battle, things never work out as planned. To give you an idea of just how much the simplest plans can go wrong, consider that the U.S. Air Force sent nine planes to attack Moammar Gadhafi's headquarters in Libya four years ago. Only two of them managed to drop their bombs and neither scored a direct hit.

The main problem, though, is that even the Pentagon's most optimistic projections about an outbreak of war with Iraq include predictions that thousands of American soldiers would die, perhaps more than 20,000.

Are George Bush and his supporters ready to take the political heat of having that many Americans come back from the Middle East in flag-draped coffins?

No doubt, it's a question the president and his advisers are considering very carefully.