Pentagon Strategy Creates Rift Among Hawks

By Jim Lobe, AlterNet
March 21, 2003

An almost audible sigh of relief could be heard from a nondescript downtown building in Washington, D.C. on Thursday morning when President Saddam Hussein appeared on Iraqi television some hours after U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles bombarded a residence in Baghdad.

Media reports quoted U.S. officials as saying that the raid was directed at a "target of opportunity," possibly Hussein and his two sons themselves, shortly after the 48-hour ultimatum delivered by President George Bush had expired. If the raid had succeeded in killing the three men, U.S. officials told reporters, the Pentagon's war plans might have shifted dramatically against an all-out war.

But fortunately for the neo-conservative hawks over at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on 19th St., three blocks from the White House, it appears that Hussein remains alive, and the invasion will now go forward as planned. "That e appear not to have gotten Saddam Hussein last night ... may be a blessing in disguise," came the email message from AEI's press center.
A "decapitation" strategy targeted on Hussein, his sons, and a few other top Ba'ath officials without a full-scale invasion and occupation represents a dangerous threat to the neocon vision for the future of the Middle East. "As in Owperation Desert Storm, the measure of victory in this war against Iraq will not be how big we start but where and when we stop," said the message from resident fellow Tom Donnelly. "'Going to Baghdad' means more than physically occupying the city. It is a metaphor for tearing out Saddamism, root and branch. There will be many moments and a quick kill on Saddam would be one where some might be tempted to say, as the first Bush administration did when the television pictures of the famous Highway of Death hit American airwaves in 1991, that enough has been done".

Perish the thought, cry the AEI hawks led by chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (DPB), Richard Perle. The current Pentagon strategy has them deeply worried that that their hopes for a thorough-going purge of ruling Ba'ath Party officials which they see as the first step to transforming the entire Arab Middle East may yet be frustrated.

The disagreement over military strategy is the first sign of a disagreement within the powerful alliance that has shaped U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks. The coalition consists of three main components: hard right-wing, or nationalist Republicans like the Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and vice president Dick Cheney; neo-conservatives like Perle and most of Rumsfeld's and Cheney's immediate subordinates, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; and the Christian Right, whose concerns have been represented most forcefully within the White House itself, particularly among Bush's domestic advisers.

Over the past eighteen months, these groups have agreed that the "war on terrorism" must include the ouster of Saddam Hussein, beating the war drums against Baghdad moments after the dust settled in lower Manhattan. While they have been unanimous on key issues of tactics, such as marginalizing Secretary of State Colin Powell and other "realist" veterans of the first Bush administration, and strategy, such as ousting Hussein, they have never agreed on what happens once Hussein is removed.

"The earliest and most salient rift (in the hawks' coalition) will be the hard-right nationalists, like Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the neo-conservatives," according to Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and National Security Council strategist under former President Bill Clinton. "For the hard right, this is really about getting Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. Once that's done, they're going to say, 'Okay, we've done our job, now let's get the hell out and go home".

But the neo-conservatives, on the other hand, want to stick around to use Iraq as a base from which to exert pressure on other presumably hostile regimes, particularly Syria, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia. The third wing of the coalition, the Christian Right, is more likely to side with Rumsfeld and Cheney than the neo-conservatives in Kupchan's view, creating a split that "will complicate George Bush's life immensely".

In many ways, these rifts were already apparent in Afghanistan, with Rumsfeld and Cheney dead-set against serious "nation-building" and the extension of peacekeeping forces beyond Kabul for fear it would interfere with U.S. military operations against al Qaeda. The result which the neo-conservatives warned against at the time is that the authority of the U.S.-installed central government is basically confined to the capital, while most of the countryside remains in the hands of warlords. The neocons claim that Washington cannot afford to leave Iraq in a similar state of disorder.

While Cheney and Rumsfeld have both given lip service to the idea that Washington's occupation of Iraq will be the first step toward the democratization of the entire region, they have also been the most outspoken in insisting that Hussein's self-exile would be one sure way of avoiding war. This attitude has caused no end of anxiety among the neo-conservatives both within the administration, in the think tanks like AEI, and in such media outlets as the Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard (headquartered in the AEI building), Fox News, and on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

For them, Iraq must not only be de-Ba'athized, but Washington must also be accorded the opportunity to show the world, (especially other Muslim states) just how powerful and determined the United States is to both wage war and enforce political reform. The neoconservatives view "Saddamism without Saddam" as the worst possible outcome of the present crisis. In the past months, they have excoriated the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for encouraging coups d'etat or enlisting the participation of even former senior Ba'ath officials in any post-invasion administration.

For the same reasons, they have voiced albeit, far more tactfully due to their interest in preserving the strategic alliance concern about Cheney's and Rumsfeld's calls for Hussein's exile and suggestions that U.S.-backed purges of the Iraqi regime will be carefully targeted and limited. The neo-conservatives have long favored a far-reaching purge that would bring to power the core of the exiled Iraqi National Congress (INC) led by Ahmed Chalabi, an old friend of Perle and Wolfowitz. Chalabi would be ideally suited to co-operate with U.S. efforts to knock over the other "dominoes" in the region who are perceived as hostile to the U.S. or Israel.

It is still too early to tell whether the neocons will get the opportunity to fulfill their vision for the Middle East or whether their hopes will be rudely shattered by a carefully targeted Cruise missile.