WASHINGTON — BUSH administration officials are taking their case to Capitol Hill this week that the world cannot wait long before moving militarily against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait. Both President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle spelled out the reasons last week for a compressed calendar. They range from Mr. Bush's warning that Saddam Hussein could be as few as six months from possessing a crude nuclear explosive to Mr. Quayle's estimate that the longer Iraq has to entrench itself in Kuwait, the more American casualties will be suffered in ousting it.
But in Senate hearings - even as the United Nations Security Council was authorizing force after a Jan. 15 deadline - the administration's message was steadily undercut by a string of former officials of both parties.
The calendar for moving against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait presents the US and its allies with two broad options. Sooner means this winter, before heat presses heavily upon the Persian Gulf and a procession of Islamic holy days begins. Later means after the UN sanctions against Iraq have been in place at least a year, perhaps next fall.
The Bush case for sooner is not intended to shut off peaceful resolution of the confrontation, but to push it into fast-forward. It does, however, imply that the nearly airtight UN sanctions against Iraq will not suffice to force a withdrawal from Kuwait.
``Those who feel there is no downside to waiting months and months must consider the damage [Saddam Hussein] is doing to Kuwait everyday,'' Bush said in a press conference Friday.
Quayle spelled out the costs of waiting in a speech on Thursday. He cited the prolonged agony of the Kuwaiti people - who according to reports from inside the country are suffering a violent oppression by Iraqi soldiers. He cited the risk that patience now might mean greater casualties later, as Saddam continually entrenches his forces in Kuwait. And he cited the risk that Saddam may obtain nuclear technology.
Another reason for a short calendar in the Gulf is self-created by the White House. When Bush announced in early November that he was raising force levels there to more than 400,000 US troops, he lit a fuse, according to some military strategists.
With that many troops deployed, and little or no troop rotation feasible, the US must use them or bring them home within several months, says one, asking anonymity because because he works for the government.
``The man can't wait it out. That's the bottom line,'' the strategist says of the president.
This pessimism is not unanimous, however. Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee Friday that once troops had established their bases in Saudi Arabia, their numbers could be drawn down dramatically. Then, when necessary, the full contingent could be air- and sea-lifted back into the Gulf theater in the space of weeks.
Iraq's nuclear potential
Bush first raised the specter of an Iraqi nuclear weapon as a near-term risk on Thanksgiving as he spoke with US troops in the Saudi desert. This concern would appear to carry the American mission in the Gulf beyond the restoring of Kuwait to the targeting of at least some of Iraq's warmaking capacity inside Iraq.
The Bush administration addresses Iraq's nuclear potential and its ``weapons of mass destruction'' - meaning chemical and biological weapons - as threats to regional stability.
Many American experts agree that Iraq is probably 10 years or more away from developing a full-fledged nuclear weapon. But the consensus breaks down over how soon it could cobble together a crude nuclear device from stolen materials. Crude in modern terms, such a bomb would be roughly on the scale of those the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Skeptics note the site inspection in Iraq last week where two international nuclear non-proliferation officials found all of Iraq's enriched uranium fuel accounted for.
But some experts share Bush's alarm. If the Iraqis have pilfered the additional fuel needed from nuclear plants around the world, says Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, they could convert it to weapons-grade fuel in one to three weeks.
Saddam could have skirted the safeguards aimed at accounting for nuclear fuel relatively easily, Mr. Leventhal says.
There are two general views about whether waiting through the winter will eventually cost more American lives in a military campaign. The Bush administration argues that it might.
As the Iraqis build supply roads, barriers to tanks, and underground shelters for their more sophisticated weaponry in Kuwait, says Tony Cordesman, national security assistant to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, ousting them becomes more costly and difficult.
But as long as the international sanctions hold, noted General Odom Friday, they will likely increasingly weaken Iraq's military.