The battle before the US-Iraq war

Senate hearings this week on war with Iraq signal that, on key political fronts, the fight has already begun.

As Congress begins to focus on the nature of a US war with Iraq, lawmakers might keep one thing in mind: In some ways, that war has already begun.

On the US side, the war involves developing an American political consensus that such a fight is in the national interest, as well as settling disputes in government about what kind of attack plan will be needed. One side effect of this effort: surprisingly open discussion about how and when the US military might prosecute such a campaign.

On the Iraqi side, war means efforts to defuse momentum for a major US attack – by wooing broad Arab popular support, among other measures.

It is often said that war is the extension of politics by other means. In the case of the US and Iraq, the opposite may also be true.

"The key battle is already under way, and is largely political," writes Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a net assessment document presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week.

Iraq cannot hope to withstand a concerted conventional attack from US forces, points out Mr. Cordesman. Thus the stakes in the current geopolitical wrangle, for Mr. Hussein, are stark: victory or defeat.

"Iraq has been involved in a political struggle against the US and its neighbors ever since the ceasefire in the Gulf war that is an extension of war by other means," says Cordesman.

In Washington, the two days of hearings on the subject of Iraq held this week by the Senate Foreign Relations panel were explicitly meant to start a national discussion around key aspects of what would be a Gulf war redux.

"We need to know everything possible about the risks of action and of inaction. Ignoring these factors could lead us into something for which the American public is wholly unprepared," wrote committee chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, and ranking minority member, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, in an op-ed article this week.

Why little opposition in Congress

In general there seems little opposition in Congress to the notion of another war with Hussein, although that could change as preparations for physical battle become more apparent. Most lawmakers are convinced that the Bush administration is very serious about removing Hussein, since some administration officials have talked about doing so almost from their first days in office.

Most may also believe that the administration will succeed, or at least produce something that could be defined as a victory. Given that context, few want to raise questions, after last year's terrorist attacks, that might leave them vulnerable to criticism about their patriotism.

"There is not detectable congressional opposition to this whole idea ... Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of history," says John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy think tank.

Combined with the administration's frequent warnings that Saddam's days are numbered, the current congressional discussions might seem to be counterproductive, at least in a military sense. They have robbed the Pentagon of what planners might call "strategic surprise." The Iraqi leader has had months to prepare for a final confrontation that might well be fatal for him.

But such chatter is simply unavoidable in a democracy, say experts. While the downside might be that the nation telegraphs its actions, the upside is that it is more united when it does move. "I tend to think the US debate over something like this isn't controllable," says Baker Spring, a military analyst at the Heritage Institute in Washington.

Not that the Pentagon wouldn't want it to be a little more controlled. Continued leaks about possible war plans – including one that called for upwards of a quarter million troops – have led Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to call publicly for identification and prosecution of the leakers.

Is it all disinformation on US's part?

It's possible that Mr. Rumsfeld's anger is feigned, of course, and that the publication of possible Pentagon attack plans is strategic deception meant to distract from real options. If Saddam believes the US will have to move hundreds of thousands of troops before any attack, he might be caught flat-footed by a helicopter-borne assault.

"If I'm planning to fight a medium-sized war on Thanksgiving, I'm going to try and convince everybody we're going to fight a big war on Valentine's Day," says Mr. Pike.

But it may be more likely that the leakage of war plans reflects the Pentagon's own internal debate about the use of force. After all, the large-war option mentioned the need for bases in nearby Arab states – upsetting many.

"You don't serve your own interest in getting your own allies roiled up against you," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

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