It is one of the most formidable arrays of American martial power outside the US. Soon President Clinton may have to decide if he will use it.
At the core of the 20,000-strong US fighting force in the Gulf is an armada of ships bristling with cruise missiles and led by the USS Nimitz, a nuclear-driven carrier with 50 attack planes.
But for all the firepower at his command, Mr. Clinton faces tough choices in deciding whether to use force to defuse the latest showdown with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Among the issues facing him: the intensity of any United States military attack and gauging the damage to relations with US allies, most of whom oppose using force.
The critical question, however, is whether any kind of military action short of an invasion would work. The US wants Saddam to revoke an Oct. 29 ban on Americans working on United Nations teams hunting for the remnants of his secret nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs.
"So long as the US is not out to gun for Saddam himself, the risks to him are minimal," says Tim Trevan of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. "He doesn't care if civilians get killed."
The risks of military action - and the opposition of most UN Security Council members - have so far persuaded Clinton to cooperate in diplomatic moves to step up pressure on Saddam.
Yesterday the Security Council was expected to ban foreign travel by Iraqi officials. The move also allows for unspecified "further measures as needed," potentially leaving room for military action.
If diplomacy fails...
But there seems little chance the travel ban will persuade Saddam to drop his ban on American arms inspectors or his demand for an end to UN sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iraq says the American monitors are spies. It charges they have blocked UN confirmation that Iraq's illegal arms programs have been terminated, a condition for lifting the sanctions.
If Saddam doesn't capitulate - or if he attempts to shoot down US spy planes supporting UN monitors - Clinton could be pressured to act militarily.
But perhaps the most pressing factor is the respite Saddam has won from UN monitoring by blocking inspectors. The longer the UN is hindered, US officials say, the greater the danger that Iraq can begin making chemical and biological weapons.
"Time really is of the essence here," asserts US Defense Secretary William Cohen.
The US contends that existing UN resolutions provide the US with the authority to launch strikes against Iraq for violating the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire.
Moreover, conceding to Iraq could be a humiliating blow to US prestige - and could embolden Saddam in his efforts to win relief from sanctions. A concession could also undermine American security interests in the Gulf.
Because previous US strikes have left Saddam in power, some analysts argue that any military action must be aimed at instigating his ouster or he will remain a serious source of instability.
From missiles to the B-2
If the US is intent on seriously damaging Saddam, the first wave of cruise missiles fired from ships in the Gulf would most likely be followed by aircraft bombings of key targets.
One weapon that could aid in this effort is the B-2 stealth bomber - a plane the US didn't have during the Gulf War. It can take off from bases in the US and - with midair refueling - drop precision-guided bombs on Iraq.
Targets could include anything from low-level air-defense and communications centers to the headquarters of Saddam's elite Republican Guard or intelligence services. Indeed, the more-adamant voices say the US should target the institutions that sustain Saddam. Their destruction, these analysts say, would encourage moderate elements in the military to overthrow Saddam.
Other experts reject such a scenario. They point out that it failed to materialize during the massive pounding Iraq took in the Gulf War. Since then, they say, Saddam has eliminated most of his domestic opponents.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former senior Pentagon official now at the Rand Corp., a California think tank, says massive military action will not work unless it is accompanied by a long-term US effort to rebuild a viable Iraqi opposition that could exploit the damage to foment Saddam's downfall.
Such an opposition would get access to Iraq's frozen assets overseas and would set up a government-in-exile in areas where the Iraqi army is unable to operate because of UN-decreed no-fly zones, he says.
Mr. Trevan says military action would be a major gamble for Clinton. Should the president opt for it, US forces should first level Iraqi air defenses and then go for sites where Saddam is believed to have hidden remnants of his illegal weapons programs, he says.
Saddam might then rescind his ban on American UN inspectors, Trevan says. But should he still refuse, "the options for the US will be to halt military action and allow Iraq to win, or to continue military action with the real prospect of losing international consensus on continuing sanctions," he says.
Patrick Clawson, an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Pentagon think tank, says the US should gear up for military action, shifting more forces to the Gulf. But he doubts it will come to a confrontation, saying Saddam would likely back down.
"Showing we are prepared to use military force," he says, "makes it less likely that we would have to do it."