Bush's decision: To attack Iraq -- or not?

Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Harry Truman and the atomic bomb. John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. George W. Bush and Iraq.

Bush's decision to attack Iraq -- or not to attack -- ranks among the most difficult any president has faced over the past several decades.

Lee Edwards, an analyst of presidential decision-making at the Heritage Foundation, said there is a common thread to all debates over the use of massive force: ''You have to ask yourself what the alternatives are.''

To many, what seems to be lacking in the Iraq case is the clear provocation that Truman confronted against Japan and Kennedy against the Soviet Union and their Cuban allies.

There is the strong suspicion that Saddam Hussein has the means and the motives to do something nasty against the United States, but is that justification enough?

Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, acknowledges that the difficulties in going after Saddam militarily are great but he believes the risks are worth it.

''I think we have to do something,'' he said. ''He (Saddam) does pose a threat. We have to do something because we said we would do something.''

Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution said Bush seems to have made a decision to take on Saddam without thinking through the consequences.

''He's been stuck with the decision ever since he made it,'' Daalder said. Alluding to what he called the Bush's ''analytical emptiness'' regarding Iraq, he said it is possible that ''the most likely way in which Saddam would use weapons of mass destruction (against Americans) is if we attack them.''

Daalder says there is a stark difference between Bush's dilemma and the one Kennedy faced in 1962 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.

Forty years ago, he said, ''There was an imminent threat, it was clearly identified and had to be dealt with,'' a reference to the offensive missiles Moscow installed in western Cuba.

Kennedy chose not to attack but instead imposed a ''quarantine'' around Cuba, blocking the entry of Soviet vessels to the island.

An anxious world waited 13 days before the superpowers were able to resolve the conflict peacefully. It was the closest the world came to a nuclear exchange in the atomic age.

Ornstein said Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan in August 1945 was momentous because of the unprecedented loss of life he knew it would cause.

What made the decision easier was that Truman also knew the alternative to the bomb -- continued conventional warfare with ''immense bloodshed on both sides,'' Ornstein said.

According to estimates, the number of dead would have exceeded by far those killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Horrible as the bombings were, they brought a speedy end to the bloodiest war in history.

There were other momentous presidential decisions: Truman sending troops to South Korea in 1950, President Johnson escalating the Vietnam War by carrying the fight into North Vietnam in 1965 and President George H.W. Bush leading an international coalition to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991.

Many of the protagonists from 1990-91 are back for a return engagement: Colin Powell, presiding at the State Department; Dick Cheney, now vice president; and Paul Wolfowitz, now No. 2 at the Pentagon. All had different but critical roles in the earlier confrontation.

And once again, Saddam is the black-hatted guy from the Iraqi badlands, the same as he was in 1990-91.

But the situation the younger Bush faces is far different from that era, when it was relatively easy to rally international support against Saddam following his takeover of Kuwait.

Eleven years later, the coalition against Iraq is nowhere to be found. But Edwards, of the Heritage Foundation, believes that the case against Saddam is strong and that the earlier coalition can be rebuilt in large measure, especially in Europe.

''It's true the allies now have cold feet,'' he says. But he believes Powell can turn things around, and he predicts that the secretary will be doing just that all over Europe in the months ahead.

George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.

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