The Bush administration seems to be moving toward a major decision on Iraq.
Here are some of the questions we should be asking as the process moves along. The answers are based on public testimony at Senate hearings last week, statements by government officials, and a number of private conversations with Washington insiders.
Would we be better off without Saddam Hussein? Yes.
Why? He's a danger to world peace. Despite commitments to stop, he is continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction. These include chemical and probably biological arms, and he may be close to nuclear. He's got perhaps 20 Scud missiles left over from the Gulf War and is developing a two-stage rocket. Any of them could carry a chemical, biological, or nuclear warhead.
Should the US lead the charge to get rid of him? That decision is already taken. President Bush has committed to a "regime change" in Iraq. If that means by military action, only the US has the necessary will and the wherewithal.
How will the US do it? Ah, the question of the day. We live in a remarkable society in which war plans are in the public domain. Pentagon staffers are leaking. Administration officials are floating trial balloons. The Air Force wants to take the lead with precision bombing. The Army thinks ground troops will be needed for street fighting in Baghdad. Within the Army, some favor lean special operations units and others say it will take 250,000 soldiers with heavy armor.
When would the operation begin? Another critical question. Some reports have advance US military planning units in Kuwait and Qatar. But it does not seem that a final plan has been approved, a date set for its launch, or even a "Go" signal given by Bush.
What would trigger a "Go"? Some clear provocation by President Hussein that would rally world opinion. This could be firm evidence that Iraq had developed a nuclear bomb. It could be a clear link of Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Are there not opposition forces in Iraq that could get rid of Hussein? Not really. They are fragmented and riven by jealousies and conflicting agendas.
Does the US need allies for such a venture? Ideally, yes. But it depends on the scope of the mission. If it can be achieved primarily with air power, then the US can mount devastating strikes from a carrier force in the Persian Gulf. Use of major ground forces would need access to bases in other countries.
What about congressional approval? There is debate about this. Some say Congress needs to approve a war. Others cite carry-over provisions from the Gulf War, and Sept. 14 authority to the president to wage war against terrorism, as authorizing him to act against Iraq. What is clear is that Congress wants to be consulted, and made aware of the possible consequences.
What are the consequences? Political and economic chaos in Iraq unless there is a good post-Hussein game plan. While some experts argue that the postmilitary involvement would be minimal, others contend that thousands of troops and billions of dollars would be needed for rebuilding.
What about US public opinion? Recent polls show a substantial majority favor removing Hussein. But the mission, and method of achieving it, needs to be clearly spelled out. Vietnam haunts the military as an example of a mission in trouble when public support is uncertain.
Why not just wait Hussein out? An argument for this is that overwhelming US might has successfully deterred a variety of nations from hostile action. Hussein knows this and surely is not suicidal. But the counterargument is that nobody can be sure how close he is to going nuclear, and how tempted he might be to use such a weapon against Israel or the US, or divert it to terrorist hands.
What are the ultimate options? (1) Do nothing (but not likely in this administration). (2) Give Hussein a last-chance deadline for opening up Iraq to UN weapons inspectors who could go unannounced to any facility in his country also an unlikely scenario. (3) Let Hussein's (anticipated) failure to accept condition-free inspection trigger the "regime change" Bush has called for, but at a time and in a manner still undetermined.
John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is former editor of the Monitor.