What has long been grist for spy novels and Hollywood screen writers is now gaining currency on Capitol Hill when it comes to Iraq.
Calls have been mounting in Congress for the United States to launch an all-out covert effort to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Clinton administration officials and many intelligence experts are pouring cold water on such plans.
Not only are Iraqi opposition groups too splintered and riven by regime informers to participate in such an operation, but the costs could total billions of dollars and none of Iraq's neighbors would support it, they say. Furthermore, the failure of such an operation would deal a humiliating blow to the fragile US standing in the region.
"There is an awful lot of cheap talk in Washington," asserts Robert Gates, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency during the 1991 Gulf War. "Some of the comments ... about getting rid of Saddam seem to me awfully naive."
Indeed, several CIA-backed Iraqi opposition plots to oust Saddam since the Gulf War have ended in disaster. Even Israel's fabled spy agency, the Mossad, has been unable to penetrate his inner security ring, Israeli experts say.
Furthermore, experts add, the US has a bleak track record in replacing hostile regimes with governments capable of promoting peace, democracy, and other long-term American interests.
For instance, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to oust Cuban dictator Fidel Castro ended in a bloody fiasco, while Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, installed with the CIA's help in 1953, pursued policies that led to the 1979 Islamic revolution.
It is rare that a US covert operation has "put in place an authority structure and civil society that ultimately benefited the US," says Allan Goodman, a former CIA official who is now a dean at Georgetown University in Washington. "If we did this [in Iraq], we need to be completely sure of who would replace Saddam and we are not there yet."
Demands for action to topple Saddam reflect the frustration many officials share over how to deal with the dictator, especially given his success in weakening the US-led coalition that vanquished him in the Gulf War.
The question has been hotly debated since November when Iraq blocked United Nations inspectors hunting for its biological and chemical weapons, prompting the US and Britain to deploy at huge costs and political risks a force of ships and aircraft in the Gulf. The UN-brokered Feb. 23 deal that staved off a US-led attack has added more fuel to the debate.
"I am convinced that we need to move forward with support for an alternative to Saddam Hussein," Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas averred at a March 2 hearing on proposals for toppling the Iraqi despot.
RECENT news reports quote US officials as saying the administration has reviewed options for covert action against Saddam. But experts say what would ordinarily be top-secret information would not have been disclosed, except to deliberately kill what is widely believed to be a bad idea.
Any effort to oust Saddam would have to combine covert and above-ground measures in a comprehensive policy involving intricate planning and coordination, experts say. Furthermore, it could take years to succeed as occurred in Afghanistan, where the US helped Islamic guerrillas end the 1979-89 Soviet occupation and oust the communist regime in its most successful covert operation of its kind ever.
Overt steps against Saddam could include tightening enforcement of UN sanctions to halt its oil smuggling, extending northern and southern no-fly zones to the entire country, and opening a US-funded radio station to beam anti-Saddam programming into Iraq. Washington would also have to lead an international campaign to indict Saddam on war crimes charges, experts say.
On the covert side, the US would have to oversee the training and arming of Iraqi opposition groups and screen the recruiting of Iraqi military officers. American pilots might have to provide cover to opposition forces so they could capture territory for a government-in-exile, experts say.
Some of these elements are being promoted by the main Iraqi opposition group, the London-based Iraqi National Congress (INC), as part of a plan for a popular revolt to oust Saddam and his Baath Party regime. It says it does not want CIA involvement, only open American political and military support.
"Saddam Hussein can only be removed by popular insurgency. He is coup-proof," says Ahmad Chalabi, head of the INC.
But experts have doubts about Mr. Chalabi's plan and other proposals for replacing Saddam.
Most critical, they say, the Iraqi opposition is divided by religious and ethnic rivalries, including a war between Kurdish rebels that US mediation has failed to quell. The differences leave little hope of the opposition becoming a unified force capable to taking on Saddam.
"This kind of thing takes months to organize and a prolonged period to become effective," says Mr. Gates. "In Afghanistan, you already had an armed opposition ... that represented a cohesive opposition on the ground to the Soviets."
Furthermore, the US did not act alone in Afghanistan. Other Western states, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran supplied arms, humanitarian aid, or both to the Afghan mujahideen. Pakistan and Iran also provided them with bases and bore the burden of hosting 5 million Afghan refugees.
But a US operation to oust Saddam would garner little international support, reflecting the opposition to the use of military force to resolve the standoff over UN weapons inspections. None of Baghdad's neighbors - Turkey, Syria, Iran, or Jordan - would be willing to provide bases to the Iraqi opposition from which to move into Iraq. Among other things, they share with other nations in the region a fear of provoking an Iraqi civil war that could further destabilize the region.
That is precisely what occurred in Afghanistan, where the victorious Islamic rebel groups turned on one another in vicious fighting that persists today.