As hearings begin in the U.S. Senate on the possibility of a U.S. military offensive against Iraq, a national debate seems likely to follow.
Supporters say overthrowing Saddam Hussein would bring peace and stability to the Middle East. Critics say an attack on Iraq would result in the opposite.
Everyone wants a regime change in Iraq, says David Phillips, director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. The only question is how to do it.
"Benefits are multifold. Having an Iraq, which is pro-western, would be a help to the Middle East peace process," he said. "It would represent a reliable source of fuel for America's economic recovery. It would also exert a positive influence in terms of democratization on other front line states in the region."
Mr. Phillips says Saddam Hussein can offer more resistance than he did in the Gulf War and even resort to poison gas. There is also the possibility that, faced with a U.S. attack, his forces could melt away and even defect to the enemy.
Former U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Ken Adelman says the Iraqi army is so weak that the war would be a cakewalk for the United States.
Maybe so, replies Michael O'Hanlon, a senior defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. But you cannot assume it. A hope is not a strategy.
"Even if the prognosticators who think this will be a cakewalk are right, their thinking is not a serious basis for planning American foreign policy," he said. "We have to assume this will be hard, and we have to assume that at least the more elite professional part of the Iraqi military will fight. Anything else will be a fundamental dereliction of duty by American policy makers and simply not a serious way to think about planning a war."
After a recent visit to the region, Mr. Phillips wrote in the Wall Street Journal that many leaders want Saddam Hussein to go but are reluctant to say so publicly. They want to make sure the United States is serious and will follow through, as it has not done in the past.
As an example of U.S. determination, Mr. Phillips cites some postwar planning. "There are already efforts underway to design a federal democratic republic for Iraq and power-sharing arrangements between Iraq's ethnic and religious groups," he said. "Everyone has been crystal clear that they do not support an independent state of Kurdistan in Iraq or in any of the countries where there are Kurds residing."
Mr. Phillips says Turkey, above all, should be reassured by this U.S. pledge.
King Abdullah of Jordan is not reassured. With a majority Palestinian population, he fears the reaction to TV coverage of Iraqis dying at the hands of Americans. He told the New York Times he is weary of what he calls Bush Administration hawks obsessed with Iraq while letting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fester. Contrary to administration plans, he says Jordan will not serve as a base for an attack on Iraq.
Assuming the United States wins the war in timely fashion, Mr. O'Hanlon wonders about the aftermath. The Bush Administration has had little to say about postwar Iraq.
"If we were arguing this mission is necessary for the good of Iraq and for the good of the region, it would be incumbent upon us to do what was needed to hold the country together," he said. "I think it would be terrible policy to go in and just overthrow Saddam without any sense of what is going to replace him. Therefore, I think you have to talk about not just a several month war to unseat Saddam but a several- year-long occupation thereafter."
Mr. O'Hanlon says a U.S. occupation on the order of the post World War II Marshall Plan is needed. An Iraq in chaos and in danger of splitting into three parts would require an occupation force of 10,000 to 20,000 troops for a period of at least 10 years.
This can be done, says Mr. O'Hanlon, but do we want to do it? Have we really considered the costs? Has the President?