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    A Times Editorial

    The Iraq obsession

    The Pentagon's real military leaders are warning that a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein would be more difficult than the armchair generals claim.


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 28, 2002


    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took extravagant umbrage to a New York Times report earlier this month that revealed details of a classified document on possible military options for overthrowing Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld's professed concern over leaks is disingenuous. He knows that most of the recent public discussion of military scenarios for attacking Hussein has come from neoconservative cheerleaders -- including Rumsfeld's own deputy, Paul Wolfowitz -- eager for war against Iraq. Many of the armchair generals have publicly discussed the military options in greater detail than the New York Times article did.

    Rumsfeld also knows that some of the strongest doubts about the feasibility of overthrowing Hussein's government are coming from the real American generals and admirals who would have to carry out such a war. Their military concerns -- along with the political concerns of virtually all of our allies, Iraq's neighbors and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle -- deserve much more public attention than they have yet received.

    Rumsfeld charged that the New York Times story was "putting people's lives at risk," but it didn't reveal anything that Hussein and the Iraqi military didn't already know. Rumsfeld likely was more annoyed that the story provided further evidence another war against Iraq could be far more complex and dangerous than the saber-rattlers suggest. The story centered on a preliminary document prepared at Central Command, based in Tampa, which presents a scenario for a land, sea and air attack against Iraq from three directions. Military experts previously have estimated a successful attack against Hussein's regime would require at least 200,000 troops. Even in the best of circumstances, a near-term commitment of that scale would greatly strain U.S. forces already spread thin in a worldwide war against terrorism.

    The Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Pentagon leaders have expressed more specific concerns about an impending attack on Iraq. They worry about increased risks of U.S. troops' exposure to chemical and biological attack. They worry about the evident lack of support from traditional allies and the likelihood that governments in the region would refuse U.S. forces access to staging areas that were crucial during the Persian Gulf War. They worry that Hussein's removal would lead to chaos or an equally dangerous new regime unless U.S. forces undertook an intense, long-term occupation of Iraq. Perhaps most of all, they worry that a massive military commitment in Iraq would leave American targets vulnerable in much of the rest of the world.

    Those purely military concerns should be considered in the context of the broader political and diplomatic controversies an attack on Iraq could provoke. Even our staunchest European allies question the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq in the face of more immediate priorities in the war against terrorism. Even friendly Arab governments warn that anti-American emotions in their countries could explode if the United States attacked Iraq without first helping to stabilize the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

    Saddam Hussein is brutal and unpredictable enough to commit some act of war that would demand an immediate, overwhelming U.S. military response, whether or not the rest of the world chose to help us. However, no one has offered hard evidence that Hussein's regime was even indirectly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

    For now, White House officials are talking ominously of the sort of "preemptive" attack President Bush outlined in a May speech at West Point: invading Iraq to prevent what Hussein might do in the future.

    When a presidential administration is maneuvering toward a major war without a direct provocation requiring immediate action, the American people and their elected representatives in Congress deserve to be part of the process. Scheduled hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee may finally allow for a serious public discussion of the White House's Iraq policy. The Bush administration would do itself a favor by encouraging a public debate on Iraq while there is still time. History has taught us that our wars -- and the presidents who commit the country to them -- cannot succeed without the informed support of the American people.

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