WASHINGTON — President Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs. Now concern that a misstep in Iraq could leave President Bush with something similar like a "Bay of Basra" is influencing deliberations over how to carry out the president's order to depose Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Kennedy's 1961 plan to free Cuba from the Marxist Fidel Castro using anti-Castro Cubans ended in disaster and only bolstered a regime that survives today. Mr. Bush has approved stepping up cooperation with the Iraqi opposition, largely through the CIA and State Department, with the goal of bringing down Hussein's regime.
But many in the administration continue to doubt that acoup from within will work at least not soon enough to stop the Iraqi leader from using the weapons of mass destruction the US contends he possesses or is developing. The Joint Chiefs of Staff is also jittery that even an attack following the Afghan model US airpower and special forces working with armed Iraqi opposition could not guarantee success, sources say.
So without having made any decisions yet on exactly how or when to move definitively for "regime change" in Iraq, the Bush administration is working toward several options. And still alive is the idea that a full-scale US invasion supported by "willing" allies but much smaller than the half-million soldiers assembled for the Gulf War may yet be necessary.
"The Pentagon is not ready, so what the president is doing is keeping all the options open and advancing them all," says Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Near eastern affairs. "The idea is to keep everybody busy, and maybe one [option] will work before he has to send in our troops."
Central to the debate is the question of just how strong the Iraqi leader is.
Some civilian officials at the Pentagon and close outside advisers contend Hussein is much weaker today than a decade ago and that US air weaponry is more powerful and precise. Some Iraq watchers say Hussein's support from Iraqis truly tired of life under a ruthless dictator would wilt with the clear prospect of his fall. Kenneth Adelman, former Reagan arms control adviser, said earlier this year that taking out Hussein would be "a cakewalk."
But others reject such assurances because no one can say with certainty how Hussein's forces will respond to a coup attempt or invasion, and when either failure or success is likely to cause profound regional repercussions. "It's particularly reckless and very, very dangerous to start saying this is something that's going to be easy," says Anthony Cordesman, a specialist in Iraq at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You're not dealing with an unsophisticated force, and it's a complex and unpredictable situation, completely different from Afghanistan."
The complexities Mr. Cordesman cites include the level of armed-forces loyalty to Hussein, the impact of international sanctions and nationalism on public sentiments, the response of Kurdish and other minorities to an attack, and the impact of a decade of limited access to the world arms market. "Iraq remains the most effective military power in the Gulf," he says, so the many uncertainties "can still favor either side."
The US military brass assumes, say various sources, that the only way to guarantee American success is through a massive enough attack that the importance of the "intangibles" is reduced. But the Pentagon generally isn't seen as ready to stage an operation involving up to 200,000 soldiers before early next year. And such an attack poses its own set of complex problems.
A chief concern for military planners is that a desperate Hussein is likely to resort to using whatever weaponry he has. To offset that, planners say any intervention must include as much surprise as possible, preemptive air strikes, and pre-attack cultivation of Iraqi forces supporting an invasion.
Another problem is that the US has been working with the Iraqi opposition at varying levels of seriousness over the last decade, and the results are not reassuring to many US officials. For their part, some opposition leaders complain the US has left them in the lurch at crucial moments in the past (reminiscent of the Bay of Pigs debacle).
In any case, US military preparedness is not the only factor in the timing. Other elements include the status of the Afghan war, the broader battle against Al Qaeda, the extent to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to demand international focus, and the cultivation of an anti-Hussein coalition.
Some experts warn against allowing an obsession with Hussein to dominate the broader terror war.
"There's a danger that Iraq will be allowed to divide the intellectual and physical resources you have to fight Al Qaeda," says Rohan Gunaratna, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "Iraq does not pose an imminent threat to the US, but the Al Qaeda organization does, and attention to meeting that threat should be undivided," says Mr. Gunaratna, author the book, "Inside Al Qaeda."
He says a strong element holding Hussein back from using weapons of mass destruction is his status as a leader and his hold on his country a brake not applicable to Al Qaeda, which he says continues to work at expanding its own arsenal.
Though Hussein's clear link to the Sept. 11 attacks hasn't been found, others say, his links to Al Qaeda can't be ignored, and the US must focus on Hussein as a global threat willing to use weapons he develops.
James Phillips, an Iraq expert at the Heritage Foundation, says the US and the international community should work now to convince the Iraqi military that "anyone who goes along with Hussein in using weapons of mass destruction in a battle situation will be held just as accountable [as Hussein]."
Mr. Phillips notes that German intelligence earlier this year concluded that Hussein is only three years away from successfully developing nuclear weapons. He says that prospect, plus the biological weaponry the Iraqi leader is already assumed to possess, should be the world's focus.
Phillips rejects the assumption that the US isn't ready for an invasion before early next year predicting such a move could come any time after the summer. He concludes the number of soldiers necessary "will be in the tens of thousands, but not the hundreds of thousands. Such big numbers are the product of a bureaucracy that wants a wide margin of error to act but the evolution in airpower since [the Gulf war] and other factors mean it's not necessary."