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Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Analysis: Key questions in Iraq debate
George Bush, US President
There are differing views within the Bush administration
Roger Hardy

It has been called a phoney war, one played out not on distant battlefields but in the opinion pages of America's most prestigious newspapers.

It has also been called a battle for the soul of the president.

What is at stake is not only the future shape of the Middle East, but in all probability the future of US foreign policy.

As an American attack on Iraq has grown more likely, an intense public debate has got under way among Republican commentators, many of them veterans of previous administrations.

While military men debate the tactics and strategy of waging a new war against Iraq, the political debate has focused on five crucial questions.

What is the nature of the threat posed by the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad?

There is general agreement he does pose a threat, since it is widely believed he has chemical and biological weapons and is working to obtain nuclear weapons.

But there is disagreement about whether this poses such an immediate threat as to justify a pre-emptive war. Hawks within the Bush administration argue that it is, and that delay is, therefore, intolerable.

This argument has won support from the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Saddam has perfected the game of shoot and retreat, and is very skilled in the art of denial and deception

Dick Cheney,
US Vice-President

Others are not convinced, seeing Saddam's weapons as one threat among many. They argue that unless the administration publishes new evidence showing there is an immediate and palpable threat, war is not justified.

Some see a doctrine of pre-emption as setting a dangerous precedent.

Should the priority be "regime change" or UN weapons inspections?

Leading hawks, including Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say that even if Iraq lets the weapons inspectors return, they would achieve little.

As Mr Cheney put it in a speech this week, "Saddam has perfected the game of shoot and retreat, and is very skilled in the art of denial and deception."

In contrast, James Baker, Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, says the administration should seek a UN Security Council resolution "requiring that Iraq should submit to intrusive inspections anytime, anywhere".

Writing in the New York Times a few days ago, Mr Baker argued this would enable Washington to occupy the moral high ground. If Saddam failed to comply, the case for regime change would be strengthened.

So is war the answer?

The dominant view in the administration seems to be that it is. Hawks argue that containment of Iraq has failed, that Saddam is unlikely to be overthrown in a coup or cut down by a lone assassin.

And so the only foolproof way is for American troops to do the job.
Donald Rumsfeld
Mr Rumsfeld predicted that key allies will rally round if it comes to war

Secretary of State Colin Powell is known to disagree. Last week one of his advisers, General Anthony Zinni, warned in a little-publicised speech that a war would alienate America's allies in the Middle East.

He also declared that pursuing Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda group and seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians are higher priorities than going after Saddam Hussein.

But Mr Powell's most forceful ally has proved to be Brent Scowcroft, who was National Security Adviser to the first President Bush.

Going much further than other Republicans, he has argued in the starkest language that the dangers of war far outweigh the benefits.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he warned that a war against Iraq risked undermining the war on terrorism and creating Armageddon in the Middle East.

His intervention has stung the hawks more than any other, and seems to have prompted Dick Cheney to speak out this week in defence of military action.

Should America go it alone?

Donald Rumsfeld has predicted that, if it comes to war, a number of key allies will rally round. In any case, he says, unanimity is less important than doing the right thing.

The hawks believe that if America has to act alone it is powerful enough to do.

However, most Republican heavyweights, including Henry Kissinger, argue more diplomatic groundwork is needed to build up support, and that it is a mistake to alienate such key allies as Saudi Arabia in the run-up to a possible war in the Gulf.

Who would replace Saddam?

Some see this as the most crucial unanswered question.

Hawks argue, without evidence, that the majority of Iraqis are just waiting to be liberated by America. But no one has yet come up with a credible figure, or group, which might take the place of the present regime.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein
The US says Saddam is developing weapons of mass destruction

Iraqi opposition groups in exile are notoriously divided, and there is little evidence they enjoy much support within Iraq itself.

Moreover, many voices are warning that the United States should expect to remain in Iraq for five or 10 years or more, if it is serious about creating a new, democratic and unified state.

The experience of Afghanistan suggests this is an administration with little appetite for nation-building.

The wide-ranging debate under way over Iraq shows an awareness that America is at some kind of crossroads.

Resolving the debate, and thereby setting America on what may well be a new foreign policy course, will be a severe test of George Bush's leadership.

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See also:

28 Aug 02 | Middle East
28 Aug 02 | Middle East
27 Aug 02 | Americas
27 Aug 02 | Business
27 Aug 02 | Middle East
15 Jan 01 | Middle East
28 Aug 02 | Politics
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