Behind US rifts on hitting Iraq

It's the 'realists' vs. the 'Reaganites' as Bush meets today with senior advisers.

A rift over Iraq is developing in Washington along a sharp generational and ideological fault line.

Call it "realists" versus "Reaganites," although this oversimplifies things. On one side are traditional conservative foreign-policy experts, who emphasize study of national interests and working with allies. On the other are a group of younger officials, many of whom served in junior positions in the Reagan administration, who advocate a Gipper-like muscularity and more unilateral action.

By all accounts, the Bush administration has collectively decided that there needs to be a regime change in Iraq. But as the president meets with his top security advisers today at his Texas ranch, it appears that many details regarding "how" and "why" remain to be settled. The cautionary words of the old hands could yet affect the timing and shape of any US military effort in Iraq – or even whether it will take place at all.

It's this ideological debate between conservatives, more than a partisan argument between Democrats and Republicans, that's "going to be decisive" on Iraq, says Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

In recent days, the most prominent member of the realist faction has been former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, a key aide to the first President Bush during the Gulf War. Mr. Scowcroft has been publicly hesitant about a possible invasion of Iraq, emphasizing the damage an ill-thought war could cause to US standing in the Middle East.

Such an attack "could turn the whole region into a caldron and thus destroy the war on terrorism," said Scowcroft in a broadcast interview last Sunday.

Some commentators have speculated that, in going public with his opposition, Scowcroft may be delivering a pointed message from the first President Bush to his son to take things more slowly. That's certainly possible – Scowcroft and George Herbert Walker Bush wrote a book about foreign policy together and remain close – but it's perhaps more likely that Scowcroft is delivering a message for an entire generation of internationalist conservatives who fought and won the cold war with a mixture of prudence and resolve. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter's security adviser, have similarly urged a cautionary approach to planning for an Iraq war, though both appear to support some kind of military intervention.

One of the most vociferous spokesmen for the Reaganite faction has been Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, who has called Scowcroft "naive" and says that the US needs to smash Hussein before he gets nuclear weapons, by itself if need be, for the good of the world.

Mr. Perle's fellow believers include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, among others. Iraq "is not a problem we can live with indefinitely," said Wolfowitz at a press briefing earlier this month.

Already, the hard-line talk has fueled a steady media buzz that makes action against Hussein seem almost inevitable. That, in turn, may be rippling into action. Just yesterday, an Iraqi dissident group took over the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin, calling the move a "first step toward the liberation of our beloved fatherland." Several hostages were taken, and at press time the situation was unresolved.

The incident is consistent with the Reaganite or "neoconservative" view that, if the US leads, others including opposition groups in Iraq, will follow.

The term "neoconservative" generally defines those who came of political age as liberal Democrats in the 1960s, then moved rightward in response to the horrors of communist totalitarianism. William Kristol, a former adviser to Vice President Dan Quayle who has argued strenuously for an invasion of Iraq, is the son of Irving Kristol, one of the best-known neoconservatives of all.

In general, the Reaganites argue that the threat from Iraq is acute, an invasion would be militarily easy, and that the rest of the Middle East doesn't want Hussein in power any more than the US does.

Scowcroft and the realists "tell the exact opposite story," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School.

They hold that Hussein is weaker now than he was 10 years ago, that Desert Storm II would be far from a cakewalk, and that the US would become a pariah in Mideast capitals.

The Reaganites think they need to complete a job their elders didn't finish when they stopped short of Baghdad in Desert Storm I. The realists make pointed comments about the career paths of Perle and his fellows – Washington political assistant. "They have never worn a uniform," says a former government official with broad Mideast experience.

The realist-versus-Reaganite oversimplifies somewhat, say others. Ivo Daalder of Brookings sees a three-way struggle taking place. One group is "offensive imperialists," such as Perle, who want to make the world safe for freedom and democracy via US military action.

Another is "offensive realists," such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who say Hussein needs to be preempted, but care less about what Iraq's political future.

A third is "defensive realists," who see Hussein as a threat that might best be contained via continuing the status quo.

It's this three-way scrum "that's the more interesting debate," he says.

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