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Possible War with Iraq Debated in Washington - 2002-02-24

A possible war with Iraq is under serious consideration in Washington. Chief supporters of an attack on Saddam Hussein are the so-called neo-conservatives, some of whom served in the Reagan Administration. They are opposed by other former U.S. policy makers and strategists who fear the costs and consequences of such a war.

At a recent high-level party in Washington, veteran foreign correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave said he could hardly hear the piano player for all the loud talk of the coming war with Iraq. There was no question about it, partygoers assured him. It was just a matter of when. "It is in the bag. It is the next target. Just wait for Vice President Cheney to come back from his tour of the Middle East in mid-March, and it is all systems go," he said. "This is the way they are talking, and I think that is far more motivated by domestic politics than it is by the realities on the ground."

Mr. de Borchgrave, an editor at large for the Washington Times and United Press Internantional, believes the realities on the ground are a formidable obstacle to a successful overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

He said U.S. military leaders are decidedly unenthusiastic. Iraq is not Afghanistan. "It is a far more complex situation, and while the Iraqis are far weaker than they were when they invaded Kuwait, it will require a lot of boots on the ground. It cannot be done by remote control," he said. "It cannot be done by using the Iraqi National Congress to overthrow the Saddam regime. All of this, in my judgment, amounts to a huge pipedream."

But that is the dream of conservative intellectuals, said Mr. De Borchgrave, with their exceptional influence in the Bush Administration.

These are neo-conservatives, said (NBC) TV talk show host Chris Matthews, distinguishing them from less interventionist-minded ones. They have hijacked U.S. foreign policy, he claimed. What began as a clear, comprehensible war on terrorism has broadened to an ill defined, ideological crusade against the "axis of evil" denounced in President Bush's state of the union address.

Mr. Matthews said the neo-conservatives, spear-headed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, are leading the United States to unending war, along with Israel, which they ardently support.

Is it our influence or our argument? asked Tom Donnelly, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, which he calls a neo-conservative or Reaganite think tank involved in defense and foreign policy issues. "We have been lucky in the sense that we have been persistent and consistent and stuck to our principles through the course of time," he said. "I think it is more a question of President Bush coming around to see the validity of our arguments than it is any back channel or secret handshake type influence."

Mr. Donnelly said Iraq represents a clear danger to the world as Saddam Hussein develops his weapons of mass destruction. The sooner he goes, the better, whatever the consequences, including the possible break-up of Iraq. "A unitary Iraq is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself, especially if the unified government is under Saddam Hussein. It is hard to imagine Iraq being more dangerous than it is now," he said. "And it is probably likely that a more representative government there would be more likely to keep the country together than otherwise."

Mr. Donnelly does not minimize the cost of such a war. As in Afghanistan, the United States would have to participate in assuring post-war stability. "As we are now discovering in Afghanistan, we cannot just poke our noses in there, dust off our hands and walk away from it, and the same would be true in Iraq, although in many ways, reconstructing Iraq might be easier than reconstructing Afghanistan," he said.

Mr. Donnelly believes Iraq has more to build on: an educated people with a talent for commerce. Liberated from Saddam Hussein, he said, the country would flourish.

That is his dream of war or de Borchgrave's nightmare. Take your pick.