The Fog of Battle: Bush's Diplomatic Offensive Is Well Underway. but Talk Is Cheap, and War Is Not. Evaluating the Military Options

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Byline: John Barry and Evan Thomas

It was, in sheer scale, "the greatest cavalry charge in American history," wrote one military historian. The four-day, 250-mile sprint of the 24th Mechanized Division around the western flank of Saddam Hussein's Army in the 1991 gulf war was a dashing feat of arms, a show of American can-do spirit and ability. But as the U.S. military prepares to finish the job, possibly by driving all the way to Baghdad, it is worth considering the heavy lifting required to move a division of tanks and armored-personnel carriers that far, that fast. The 24th Mech had 1,600 armored vehicles, 3,500 wheeled vehicles and 90 helicopters. To keep the division's 18,000 soldiers rolling along required 395,000 gallons of fuel, 213,000 gallons of water and 2,400 tons of ammunition--each day. Before shoving off, the 24th Mech stockpiled 2.3 million gallons of fuel and 3 million tons of other supplies. Multiply those totals by four or five, and you have some idea of the bare minimum of logistics required by the Pentagon to fight a brief but winning war 8,000 miles away.

Diplomacy may head off war. Conceivably, Saddam will allow U.N. arms inspectors free rein to roam Iraq. But in the more likely event that the Iraqi strongman balks at the anywhere, any-time access demanded by the Bush administration, the U.S. military is preparing to change Saddam's regime by force of arms. While Saddam's forces are much weaker than they were a decade ago, when they folded before Operation Desert Storm in less than 100 hours, Saddam would be fighting for his life this time around. Driving Saddam out of power could be far bloodier than driving him out of Kuwait. According to knowledgeable sources, planning for the invasion of Iraq is not as far along as press reports generally assume. The Pentagon has reportedly presented President George W. Bush with detailed options for attacking Iraq, but the top brass is still wrestling with several key questions that must be answered before a quick and not-too-costly victory can be assured.

What bases--and what plan? Ideally, the Pentagon would like to be able to hit Saddam from all sides--from Jordan in the west, Turkey in the north, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the south and west. The Saudis, in particular, were helpful in the gulf war, providing U.S. warplanes with a score of air bases. But no Middle Eastern country is eager to be seen as a launching pad--or doormat--in an American invasion of an Arab nation. Saudi Arabia has barred the United States from using its bases or even flying overhead unless the United Nations passes a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. If, as expected, the U.N. arms-inspection process drags out for months, Bush may decide that he cannot afford to wait. Yet if America goes it alone, the Saudis may not only deny their bases but lean on the smaller gulf states to stiff the Americans as well. Without sure knowledge of where forces can be positioned and poised to strike, the war planners at Central Command and in the Pentagon are laboring under tremendous stress.

The uncertainty has caused tension between the military and its civilian masters. According to one knowledgeable source, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has engaged in frustrating, circular discussions with his generals. In a scene that has repeated itself more than once, Rumsfeld, an impatient questioner, demands to see a plan of attack. The generals respond that they can't plan without knowing exactly what they are planning for and with what tools, i.e., what bases and what forces. Rumsfeld becomes vexed and insists on "out of the box" thinking. The generals look perplexed or exasperated and fall back on traditional notions of the American way of war, which is to overwhelm the enemy with superior firepower. Such a campaign takes a long wind-up and a massive attack, which prompts the basic questions--from where? with what forces?--all over again. Some Pentagon officials are already mocking the massive assault proposed by CENTCOM's Gen. …