Cost of ousting Hussein begins to dawn on Hill Legislators counsel cooler language since price is a major war

March 05, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Demands in Congress for overthrowing Saddam Hussein by practically any means have grown so strident that some Republicans and Democrats are counseling all sides to lower their voices and examine the issue with cooler heads.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has called for the overthrow of Hussein, conceded that the brash talk in Congress has "made the words 'covert action' a joke."

"Once you get all this bravado out of your system and you look at the costs and options available, you become a little more sober," said Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat.

Still, McCain and others said, Congress must keep pressuring the Clinton administration to adopt new strategies that go beyond simply containing Hussein's power. And they are backed by a broad swath of Washington's Republican foreign-policy elite.

A Feb. 20 letter to the president calling for Hussein's ouster bears 38 signatures, including those of former high-ranking Defense and State Department officials and national security advisers, such as former Republican defense secretaries Frank C. Carlucci, Casper W. Weinberger and Donald H. Rumsfeld, and Reagan national security advisers William P. Clark Jr. and Robert C. McFarlane.

"These are the kinds of things that should have been focused on six years ago," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. "The core of the debate now has to be Saddam Hussein -- how to get rid of him."

Policy-makers of all political stripes question whether the sustained bombing campaign envisioned by the president if Hussein reneges on his promises would alone fulfill its goal of curtailing Iraq's capacity to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

In recent days, a series of proposals have coalesced to form a more activist strategy for ousting Hussein. They include:

The financial and military support of Iraqi dissident groups. The "Iraq opposition rose up in large numbers to fight Saddam Hussein in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf war," Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told a House hearing last month.

"If the United States want the opposition to Saddam Hussein to be less feckless, then it must be less feckless in its support."

The expansion of "no-fly, no-drive" zones in northern and southern Iraq where dissidents could establish bases of support theoretically without fear of government tanks or artillery.

Given past attacks by Iraqi forces on dissident groups, Hussein's opponents "have a right to be afraid," Ahmad Chalabi, president of the dissident Iraqi National Congress, told a Senate panel Monday.

The lifting of economic sanctions for so-called "liberated" areas controlled by opposition groups. "It is inexcusable that sanctions have been kept in place all this time on northern Iraq, even when it was liberated territory," Wolfowitz said. "This squeezed the people in the north between a U.N. embargo from the north and Saddam's embargo from the south."

The gradual release of Iraqi assets frozen in Western banks since the Persian Gulf war to pay for an insurrection.

The establishment of a "Radio Free Iraq" to broadcast into the country, an option that was implemented in the past and is likely to be tried soon, administration sources said.

The indictment of Hussein as a war criminal, by some judicial body. Such a move would undercut Hussein's legitimacy in the international community, proponents say.

"This is the time to think about this," said Richard L. Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. "If we don't remove [Hussein], we're going to have to turn around time and time again for that military stick, and it doesn't appear it will solve the problem."

Price in blood

But each of the proposals raise questions about the depth of U.S. military involvement and the price the country might have to pay in prestige and blood.

Most of the proposed policy changes have met stiff resistance from the Clinton administration, which sees them as naive at best and dangerous at worst.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said each of the proposals has been studied in depth over the past seven years. Most have been deemed ineffectual or unworkable.

"We would welcome and even look forward to working with a follow-on government in Iraq, but we're resigned to the fact that we will have to face Hussein for the time being," the official said.

Even some Republicans have become exasperated with the tone of recent policy discussions in Congress.

"People are talking almost antiseptically, as if no one gets hurt, no one gets killed, when in fact, destabilizing a totalitarian regime is a bloody mess," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a moderate Republican from Indiana and a respected voice on foreign policy. "This is all arising from the frustration that containment is not a clean, satisfying solution."

Iraqi opposition fractured

Most troubling is the state of the fractured Iraqi resistance.

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