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Internal catfights are not the way this Administration prefers to make decisions on national security affairs. The Bush team is capable of working the levers behind the scenes, maneuvering in close secrecy, then springing a plan on the public. Tight lips, perfect timing and total unity are prized above all. But none of those usual habits has controlled its handling of Iraq.
The Administration has instead been engaged in a remarkable and unsettling war game with itself. In one camp is Secretary of State Colin Powell and his diplomats at the State Department, who believe a more aggressive containment of Saddam must be tried before resorting to war. Derided as dewy-eyed optimists by their rivals, this group believes that worldwide opinion of the U.S. is so negative these days that Bush cannot attack Saddam without some clear provocation. Pressing diplomacy to the edge might at least provide that.
The Powell camp also worries that war with Iraq would destabilize the entire Islamic crescent from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas and that a post-Saddam Iraq might devolve into neighbor-rattling chaos. To make sure the hotheads consider every complication and consequence, Powell has forged an informal alliance with powerful old pals in uniform at the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are, like him, Vietnam-era generals who believe that regardless of whether an invasion is a good idea (and most doubt that it is), any military action must follow the old Powell doctrine: overwhelming in size and strength.
On the other side stand the Pentagon civilians, guys in ties who came into office ready to roll. They are convinced containment has not worked and that America's allies will never come aboard even after new U.N. inspections of Saddam's secret weapons caches--which Iraq said last week it was prepared to consider--inevitably fail. Deemed impractical "theologians" by the Powell camp, this faction is almost unconditionally pro-Israel and regards Saddam, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the more urgent regional and global threat.
The Pentagon civilians also think Saddam can be taken down much more quickly--and with fewer troops and fewer casualties--than the generals have led Bush to believe. Because these advocates contend the U.S. faces such danger from Saddam's swelling arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that it will have to destroy Saddam sooner or later, they say it's better to get it over with sooner. This camp is led in public by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and his fiercely gung ho deputy Paul Wolfowitz. But most longtime Bush hands agree that its vital spiritual leader is the backroom Vice President Dick Cheney, who gives this camp constant access to Bush's ear.
Most of the leaks in recent weeks--all those stories spelling out yet another "secret" invasion plan--have been intended, depending on which camp was involved, to slow or speed the march toward war, or humiliate the other camp in the process. Yet even when a leak is meant to pump up public opposition, the cumulative effect of the theatrics may be the opposite, conditioning the nation to assume some kind of war is inevitable.