President Bush, faced with increasingly pointed questions from Congress on his Persian Gulf policy, is also grappling with divisions among his own advisers over whether the United States must ultimately destroy the military and political power of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The combination of congressional uneasiness and internal division could spell trouble for the President, who will soon face pivotal decisions even though the confrontation with Iraq appears to have entered a temporary lull.
One senior government official, who believes the back of Hussein’s military power must be broken, said that even if Iraq were to withdraw from Kuwait, “You can’t leave him there with all his capacity for mischief and say the problem has been dealt with. The President feels very strongly about this.”
Yet other key Administration officials, among them National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and some senior State Department officials, have suggested that--under some circumstances--simply driving Iraq from Kuwait might constitute a tolerable resolution of the crisis. The regional balance of power has already shifted against the Iraqi leader because of the broad alliance of nations arrayed against him, Scowcroft has said publicly.
With Bush publicly undeclared on this fundamental policy issue, the dispute is also mirrored in Congress, raising the prospect that the United States might be headed into a prolonged military operation without a guiding vision as to what its objectives should be.
At least one senior Administration official said in an interview that Bush’s inner circle has, in fact, reached a general consensus that the threat to U.S. interests will not end until Hussein is ousted from power.
But with the crucial decisions yet to come, the unresolved questions about specific American war aims leave uncertain whether the crisis will be resolved through compromise, dictated peace terms or only the use of force--even if Iraq pulls back inside its borders.
There is general agreement that “whatever happens, we’ve got to win,” a senior Administration official said Wednesday. But, he added, “not everybody agrees exactly on what winning is.”
“Everyone agrees that Hussein has to get out of Kuwait,” a ranking State Department official said. “But beyond that, there is some disagreement. The question now is whether there should be a specific goal of getting him out of power--or at least leaving his army crippled.”
U.S. officials said discussions to date have been amiable, and they generally declined to characterize the views put forward by particular advisers to the President.
They indicated, however, that Scowcroft has taken a consistently dovish line, arguing that the United States need not overthrow Hussein and could contain his power through a continued U.S. military commitment to the region, perhaps bolstered by a U.N. peacekeeping force.
At the other end of the spectrum are high-ranking officials in the Pentagon and the intelligence community, who have argued that the peace and security of the Middle East will remain in jeopardy as long as Hussein, with his military arsenal, is in control.
“My own assessment is that he can’t remain with all his armored units and air force,” a senior U.S. official said. “And his chemical warfare capability has got to be dismantled or destroyed--it’s a sitting time bomb.”
“Even if he pulls out of Kuwait, he still has a million men,” added a U.S. military officer involved in planning the gulf operation. “Saddam has to go, and so does his army. . . . And if the (Iraqi) military doesn’t remove Saddam, we will.”
To date, the declared objectives of the massive U.S. Operation Desert Shield remain minimal. Bush has demanded only that Iraq pull out of Kuwait and release all foreign hostages, and that the ousted emir of Kuwait be restored to power.
If attacked, Administration officials have warned, the United States would respond with massive force, almost certainly striking at targets deep within Iraq. They have also made no attempt to disguise their hope that the economic squeeze on Iraq might persuade Hussein’s subordinates to overthrow him.
What remains undefined is whether the United States would be satisfied with an outcome that simply restored the status quo. Asked in a private meeting with congressmen this week to define his vital objectives, Bush repeatedly demurred.
But in what lawmakers said they regarded as an important sign that some would be willing to tolerate such a settlement, Secretary of State James A. Baker III indicated that the U.S. policy would aim at creating a regional “balance of authority” to contain Hussein and his army.
Insiders said the answer suggested agreement with arguments put forward within the Administration by Scowcroft, who has warned the President that it could be dangerous to attempt to overthrow Hussein directly, and expressed confidence that sufficient power could be mustered to restrain him.
In the most extensive public airing of that viewpoint, Scowcroft indicated in a television interview last weekend that the United States could accept a situation that left Hussein in power.
“If we go back to the status quo ante in terms of Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, and the leadership back in Kuwait, and hostages released,” Scowcroft said, “there will still be a fundamentally different situation in that area. Collective action will have been shown to work against a case of aggression.”
On the same day, however, Robert H. Kimmitt, the undersecretary of state, offered a far less sanguine assessment of whether such an outcome would be tolerable.
In what some sources said was representative of a view pressed more forcefully within the Administration by Pentagon and intelligence officials, Kimmitt said the United States “would certainly take those steps that are necessary to ensure that oil would continue to flow freely.”
“What the United States and the rest of the world community needs to do,” Kimmitt added, “is to ensure that Iraq does not pose a threat, either to its neighbors or, in a broader sense, to people throughout the region.”
Behind the scenes, Administration officials familiar with the discussions said the argument has been made more starkly. “To leave Saddam in power would be one more walk away for our track record,” a senior government official said. “We’re not big for turning the world into flames, but this is a real watershed.”
The official indicated that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had expressed sympathy for this view, in large part out of concern about the long-term burden that a containment operation would place on the military.
“He’s wrestling with the time factor,” the official said, “trying to determine how long we can go there and sit this out without it eroding our military capability.”
And inside the Pentagon, a number of high-ranking officials expressed the firm conviction that no solution that leaves Hussein in power is acceptable. “It’s taken as a given--Saddam must go,” one official said.
In a further complicating factor, one hawkish official dismissed contrasting formulations as part of an Administration effort to “make the best of a bad picture” and diminish public expectations of what the United States might gain from the crisis.
With such lack of specificity at the top, some in Congress are clearly losing patience.
Some congressional leaders said in interviews this week that they see no need for the President to telegraph his intentions. “Everyone’s trying to push him over the edge,” said Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
But in another view that is clearly gaining strength, other members made clear in their closed-door meeting with the President that they expect a more specific definition of what the United States expects to achieve.
“The deepest concern was that there be as fine an explanation of our presence there as can be produced,” said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.).
There have been clear indications, however, that legislators may be as divided as the Administration in defining what American objectives in the Persian Gulf crisis should be.
Taking the hard-line view is a sizable, bipartisan group of senators that is led by Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the Senate’s most respected foreign policy analyst. They argue that the necessary end must be to remove Saddam Hussein from power--even it if means a direct U.S. military strike on Baghdad.
“We’ve got to come up with a strategy to remove Saddam Hussein,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.), who agrees with Lugar, said Wednesday. “If we don’t, we are going to have a real monster on our hands. . . . If he stays in power, the Administration loses.”
On the other side is Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the powerful chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Nunn, who visited Saudi Arabia earlier this week, told a group of senators and congressmen in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on Wednesday that the United States ought to aim only at defending Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi attack.
“Our military mission is to defend Saudi Arabia,” Nunn told his colleagues.
Times staff writers Jack Nelson, Sara Fritz and David Lauter contributed to this report.