THE countdown toward a United States military offensive in the Persian Gulf appears to have begun. By ordering a massive deployment of yet more American troops to the Gulf, President Bush has pushed the button on a timer, say military analysts. When the buildup is completed in several months, US forces in the region will be so large that it will be difficult to sustain them at full readiness for long.
If they are to be used, they will then have to be used quickly. Secretary of State James Baker's blitz tour of the Middle East and Europe last week appears to have been designed to convey the message that the clock is now running - both to US allies, and to Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
``We must heighten the pressure further ... by laying the foundations for the use of force,'' Secretary Baker said before leaving his last stop, Paris.
Despite reports that France, for one, is hesitant about its troops joining the US in an anti-Saddam offensive, Baker said his tour found no serious difference of opinion on implementing UN resolutions calling for Iraq to leave Kuwait.
``There is no question with respect to the unity of the coalition,'' he said.
Even China, the member of the UN Security Council thought most reluctant to resort to force, seems to be telling Saddam that unless he backs off there is no hope of peace. Chinese Prime Minister Qian Qichen delivered that message to the Iraqi leader personally during a Monday visit to Baghdad.
Mr. Qichen and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat said they supported King Hassan of Morocco's call for an emergency Arab summit to avert war in the Gulf. But Iraq rejected the proposed summit Sunday.
The members of the anti-Saddam coalition don't all agree, however, about the effect so far of economic sanctions. ``There are some differences of opinion with respect to which sanctions are already working and are having a bite,'' Baker said.
President Bush's announcement last week that more US forces will be sent to the Gulf came as no surprise. Pentagon officials had been hinting for days that such an action would be forthcoming, with the only questions being how many troops would be sent, and if units now in the Gulf would be replaced and rotated back home.
The new deployment will result in the addition of from 150,000 to 200,000 US personnel to those already in the Gulf region, approximately doubling US military strength. Major units to be sent include three and a half heavy Army divisions, an additional Marine expeditionary force, three more aircraft carriers, and an undisclosed number of Air Force fighter and attack jets.
The resulting concentration of force will be too large to sit and wait for a lengthy period, according to military analysts. Two main facts point to this conclusion.
One is Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney's admission that units that were the first to arrive in Saudi Arabia will, in fact, not be sent home when the reinforcements arrive.
Military officials have said such a rotational policy is important to maintaining morale - if US troops are to be sitting and waiting for a long time.
Secondly, the sheer logistics of supporting such a force will be difficult in the Saudi desert. Analysts point in particular to the Navy's situation. When the newly deployed ships arrive, there will be six US carrier task forces in the region, an almost unprecedented concentration of naval power in the post-Vietnam era.
Operations at sea, however, are very demanding of Navy pilots and crew, and drink up massive amounts of jet fuel.
``You can't maintain six aircraft carriers there for long,'' says Greg Weaver, a senior military analyst at the SAIC Corporation.
US officials maintain that the new deployments should show Saddam that the United States is serious when it says it will use force to oust him from Kuwait. In announcing the deployment, the word ``offensive'' passed Mr. Bush's lips for the first time.
The flip side of the deployment announcement, however, is that Saddam Hussein probably believes that no military action will occur until the new forces are in place, which will take six weeks at least. He has a breathing space in which to continue hunkering down and contemplating his next move.
``This indicates to Saddam he has considerable time,'' says Raymond Tanter, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who served on the National Security Council under President Reagan.
To this point the Iraqi leader has shown little indication that the US-led military buildup in the Gulf is changing his mind about his occupation of Kuwait, and Professor Tanter believes that he won't be coerced into giving up his gains.
``I think he thinks the US is not willing to stay the course,'' he says.
Other analysts believe he may be biding his time before concessions.
``I don't think this man wants war,'' says a Pentagon Middle East expert who is part of a US government task force analyzing the Gulf situation.
``He has not challenged us anywhere,'' says the expert, pointing to such potential flashpoints as the embattled US Embassy in Kuwait.
``The No. 1 thing for him is his political and personal survival. In war, the risk for him goes way up,'' this analyst says.