From the very beginning of this Bush presidency, a number of officials, mostly Pentagon civilians, argued that it was essential to find a way to destroy Saddam Hussein's regime as quickly as possible. They were met with much skepticism, even though nobody doubted their twin contentions that Hussein's refusal to allow United Nations inspections meant that he was actively pursuing the development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and that Iraq was smuggling out enough oil despite U.N. controls to finance this development.
The "War Party," headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, accepted that it was not a practical proposition to re-fight the 1991 Gulf War and send 500,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. Its proposal was to instead arm and train Iraqi exiles in Jordan and Kuwait, while building up the Kurdish militias to take on Hussein's troops, with U.S. air support.
The State Department, under Colin Powell, disagreed. It noted that the Saudi rulers were totally against any such war because it would arouse Islamist opposition.
Of greater diplomatic significance was the opposition of the Turkish government, averse to adventures and concerned that any Kurdish victories would stimulate Kurdish nationalism within Turkey.
Powell, a former general, also rejected the war concept on military grounds, arguing that the Iraqi exiles were mere talkers who would never fight, that the Kurds were deeply divided with one faction actually allied with Saddam Hussein, and that U.S. air power could not offset all deficiencies, especially if air bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey could not be used.
Neither would the Iraqi army disintegrate, because Hussein could rely on the privileged Republican Guard divisions alone to defeat his weak enemies, leaving the less reliable conscript forces out of the fight.
Most top military officers agreed with Powell rather than with their civilian bosses in the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would not fully commit his then-limited influence on behalf of his subordinates. Because the White House would neither embrace nor categorically reject the war concept--Condoleezza Rice, generally a supporter of the Pentagon civilians, saw to that--the debate continued inconclusively until Sept. 11.
That devastating lesson in U.S. vulnerability powerfully reinforced the War Party, even before the post-attack effort to gather information from all friendly intelligence services yielded the Czech report that Mohamed Atta, leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, had made a trip from the United States especially to meet the intelligence chief of Iraq's Prague Embassy. Rumsfeld, for one, abandoned earlier reservations and accepted the logic of his subordinates.
Powell still disagreed that a military attack on Iraq was a good idea, but he was also skeptical about the bombing of Afghanistan. Once it turned out that Powell had been wrong on Afghanistan, his Pentagon critics lost no time in reminding President Bush that Powell also had opposed the bombing of Kosovo in 1999 and had even initially resisted Bush's father over the Gulf War, always arguing that bombing does not work and that only vast armies can ensure victory.
At this point, the War Party can cite the Afghan experience to overcome the purely military objection, because the same operational methods can essentially be repeated with Special Forces teams providing field training and tactical direction to Iraqi exiles and Kurdish militias, as well as the forward control of close-support airstrikes.
That can make even weak units strong, in the context of a much wider use of air power to weaken the Iraqi war machine by "strategic bombing" to destroy command centers, supply depots and oil storage, and "interdiction bombing" to attack Iraqi forces moving up for combat.
But it is still up to Powell as secretary of State to pave the way diplomatically by enlisting the support of the key NATO allies, by persuading Russia and China to accept the deed and by inducing Turkey and Jordan to accept the immediate risks of direct participation in exchange for the future benefits to them of Iraq's reconstruction.
Of course, Saudi objections would persist, but after Sept. 11 they count for nothing.
President Bush has declared that Iraq must allow U.N. inspections or else. It's a false choice since Hussein would never allow the intrusive inspections that are necessary to satisfy the U.S., and Washington would never accept the circumscribed inspections that Hussein might allow.
Yet in spite of his bellicose tone, Bush will not sign off on the venture of Iraq without allied support and Russian acquiescence.
The great weakness of the War Party therefore is that Powell is in charge of the essential diplomatic preparation for a venture that he evidently opposes because there is a culminating point of success in every endeavor of war, and to add Iraq to Afghanistan may exceed it by overstressing the system.
The great hope of the War Party is that Rumsfeld's greatly increased influence will decide the issue.
Unlike Dick Cheney in 1991, who had to share the credit for victory as secretary of Defense with the field commander Norman Schwarzkopf and Powell himself, if all goes well in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld will be the great victor, displacing Powell as the president's most authoritative advisor.
That may decide the fate of Saddam Hussein.