AFTER a week of steady criticism of its Persian Gulf strategy, the Bush administration took its turn this week to plead a case for taking a hard line - namely, a threat of early war - against Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. In testimony before Congress, top officials had hit some dominant themes: Sanctions probably won't get Iraq out of Kuwait. The international coalition opposing Iraq is fragile and could weaken as time goes on. Any military action against Iraq will be sudden and massive.
In a clear sign that Washington's tough talks have reached Badhdad, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein Thursday called on Iraq's parliament to release all foreign hostages immediately, saying recent diplomatic moves have prompted him to ``respond to positive changes,'' the Iraqi News Agency reported.
Here, however, Secretary of State James Baker III, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, Director of Central Intelligence William Webster, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, didn't appear to win any converts among the Democrats who dominate the committees they testified before.
But the officials' statements seemed equally aimed at the American people and at the Iraqi leadership itself. To Americans, the appeal was for national unity in the face of an intransigent threat to the new post-cold-war order. To the Iraqis, the remarks were a rehearsal of what they can expect to hear in face-to-face meetings with President Bush and Secretary of State Baker.
On Wednesday, Iraq formally accepted Bush's offer of talks, though dates have yet to be announced.
``We have to face the fact that four months into this conflict, none of our efforts have yet produced any sign of change in Saddam Hussein,'' Baker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ``He shows no signs of complying with any of the [UN] Security Council resolutions. Instead, he appears to be doubling his bets.''
Baker added bluntly that the talks - expected to be held before Jan. 15, the date after which the UN has authorized any means necessary to get Iraq out of Kuwait - are ``the last, best chance for a peaceful solution.''
``Put simply,'' Baker said, ``my mission to Baghdad will be an attempt to explain to Saddam the choice he faces: Comply with the objectives of the Security Council or risk disaster for Iraq.''
Baker and the other top officials stressed in their testimony that in order to make a peaceful solution as attractive as possible to the Iraqi president, the threat of war needed to be as credible as it could be - thus, the continuing buildup of United States forces in Saudi Arabia.
But some Senate Democrats see the administration's intentions in a different light. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut suggested the coming US-Iraq talks are simply an exercise in going through the motions of diplomacy so that, when a decision is made to use military force against Iraq, the US administration can say it ``gave peace a chance.''
For now, little optimism for a peaceful solution is coming out of administration corners. Bush himself said Wednesday in Argentina that he is ``not optimistic'' that the Iraq crisis can be settled without force.
Much of this week's congressional testimony has focused on the impact sanctions against Iraq have had - and, in fact, the result so far has not been insubstantial. But, US intelligence chief William Webster told the House Armed Services Committee, ``our judgment has been, and continues to be, that there is no assurance or guarantee that economic hardships will compel Saddam to change his policies or lead to internal unrest that would threaten his regime.''
Webster said that Iraqi industry has been most affected: More than 90 percent of imports and 97 percent of exports have been cut off. Severe shortages of basic foodstuffs are expected by next spring. Also by next spring, almost all foreign exchange reserves will be gone.
But, Webster added, the sanctions are having much less effect on the Iraqi military. Ground and air forces can just about maintain their current levels of effectiveness for the next nine months, he predicted.
Commenting on the civilian sector's hardships, Mr. Cheney cited Iraq's recent eight-year war with Iran and the Iraqi people's ability to hunker down and exist at subsistence level. Furthermore, he said he had revised his attitude on the potential effectiveness of sanctions after receiving information about Iraq's ability to grow more of its own food.
The main thrust of General Powell's testimony was to lay out how the US would prosecute a war against Iraq. He argued against the idea of relying largely on air power, saying that that would allow the Iraqis to focus on defeating only that aspect of US military might. The strategy, he said, will be to force Iraq ``to consider the consequences of a combined overwhelming air-land-sea campaign against a powerful coalition force.'' Thus, a continued buildup of forces has been necessary, he said.
The Capitol Hill hearings reflect the Democrat-controlled Congress's desire to play a role in shaping administration policy toward Iraq. The underlying concern among some members has been that the president will make a decision to go to war without consulting the Congress.
But even as congressmen spar with top administration policymakers on Gulf strategy, they are continuing to take other actions to get their views across. On Tuesday, the House Democratic Caucus voted 177 to 37 in favor of a nonbinding resolution declaring that Congress must formally approve in advance any US offensive military action in the Gulf.
Meanwhile, 54 House Democrats took their case to federal court Tuesday, asking Judge Harold Greene to settle a question that goes back to the beginnings of US nationhood: Can the president wage war without getting Congress's approval first?
The US Constitution declares that Congress has the sole authority to declare war. But the president is commander in chief of US armed forces. Over US history, Congress has declared war only five times, out of the up to 200 times the president has sent troops into combat.
The congressmen's lawsuit, spearheaded by Rep. Ronald Dellums (D) of California, seeks an injunction barring Bush from launching military action against Iraq without formal congressional approval. The administration argues that it has consulted regularly with the congressional leadership about Iraq and that such discussions constitute adequate Hill input.
In pleading its case in court Tuesday, the administration also argued the constitutional provision was optional - allowing Congress to start a war if it so desired, but not requiring such a declaration before the president could do the same.