The latest round of talk about scenarios for a US-led attack on Iraq to topple President Saddam Hussein remains part speculation, part revelation about just what plans the White House is chewing on.
But with experts and national and international leaders jumping into the debate, there are growing signs of the seriousness with which the administration is being taken and of a blooming interest in options other than an extremely costly military attack for dealing with Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.
Moreover, say some, the growing drumbeat of attack scenarios indicates the heated debate still going on within the administration while the trial balloons being sent up also serve to get the rest of the world accustomed to the idea of attack and keep Hussein on edge.
Americans confused by the public airing of attack scenarios and post-Hussein planning should see it as a positive sign that all options are being considered and scenarios are being thought through, suggests Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer who writes on military affairs. "You always want to have an open internal debate about what's best," he says, "and it looks like that's happening."
The debate takes a public turn in Washington Wednesday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opens two days of testimony on Iraq and implications of any US attack.
The hearings involve military and political experts but glaringly include no representatives of the administration. Foreign relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware had wanted White House participation, but was told by Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that wouldn't happen at this time.
"There's no contention over that," says a Biden aide, noting that the senator plans to hold more hearings on Iraq in the fall and "will anticipate the administration taking part at that time."
Some critics say the hearings will provide little more than a rubber stamp for the administration in its determination to rid the world of Hussein. Scott Ritter, who was a chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, says the Senate exercise is a "sham hearing" by a congressional leadership he says has "preordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts."
Meanwhile, a flurry of recent British press reports demonstrate how controversy over an attack on Iraq and its ramifications span the globe.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose stem-winding oratory helped build President Bush's case for war in Afghanistan, is under pressure from the White House to offer unequivocal support of forcing regime change in Iraq and to commit to a sizable military participation in any offensive, according to reports. At home, he's caught between members of his own Labor government cautioning against jumping into a commitment and conservatives pushing for his clear support for Bush.
Experts who are parsing as well as participating in the ongoing debate, see it as a yellow light, not a red one, for the White House plans.
Because the Senate discussion of the topic raises the seriousness of the administration proposals, says Stephen Baker, a retired rear admiral and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information in Washington, the search for alternatives to all-out military attack, likewise, becomes more serious.
"In the last three to four weeks we've been hearing much about the options and risks in hitting Saddam, and how best to do that militarily," says Mr. Baker. "Now other thinking is starting to catch on, such as the idea of sticking with containment of Saddam."
He says that part of the Pentagon top brass insists the containment policy the US and Britain have pursued against Hussein has worked better than publicly recognized, especially when put up against the potential high costs of other scenarios. For example, The New York Times reported Monday that an option being considered in the White House is for a direct, massive attack on Baghdad, designed to take out Hussein quickly and preempt any orders to the Iraqi military to respond with mass-destruction or biological weapons.
But Baker says that option causes "a lot of people considerable dismay," given the risk for high civilian and friendly casualties.
Mr. Peters, the retired Army intelligence officer, says "all this banging away at Saddam and scenarios for a US strike actually serve an important purpose.... You're getting the Europeans and the Arabs accustomed to the idea," whether it ever comes or not. And, he says,"you're keeping Saddam off balance, keeping him worried."
Peters says, for example, that he'd be surprised if the idea of a direct, massive assault on Baghad with 50,000 troops "is anything more than a trial balloon." Such a plan is dubious, he says, not because of massive casualties, which he believes could be kept "below a catastrophic level," but because the idea of a force of only 50,000 going in and getting out does not address the broader problem of what to do with Iraq once Hussein is gone.
"We can win wars, and I'm confident there are a number of ways we can win this one," Peters says, "but we're become lousy at winning the peace. We can't take that lightly in a case like Iraq."