Saddam, With a Pin or With a Hammer

The American system is prepared to endure arguments and discussion before a decision is made, but it will crush under its wheels anyone who, once the die is cast, obstinately refuses to fall into line.

In its "Notes from the Pentagon" column this past weekend, the Washington Times, a newspaper so trigger-happy that CIA is too soft for its taste, reported on a request issued to Pentagon planners by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He has asked his top special-operations officer, Gen. Charles Holland, to replicate Israel's systematic manhunt of the Black September terrorists who planned and executed the murder of 11 Israelis athletes at the Munich Olympics. According to the report, Rumsfeld "wants covert warriors to be able, at a moment's notice, to enter a foreign country, find the terrorists and then exit, without ruffling anybody's feathers." No mention was made of the Mossad's double bungle in Lillehammer - first the erroneous identification and assassination of an innocent man, and then the agents' amateurish escape, which ended in the arrest of several members of the hit team.

Holland, a U.S. Air Force general, is friendly with several IDF generals who once commanded special military units, including the current Israel Navy commander, Major General Yedidia Yaari, formerly of the naval commando unit Flotilla 13. In conversation with American friends of Israel in San Diego, Holland proudly noted that for the sake of his own fleet's pressing timetable, he had agreed to do without the brand-new fast boats that had been ordered for his forces, but were still on the factory assembly line.

In his war against terror organizations and particularly Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld is seeking consolation from Gen. Holland, in an effort to circumvent the usual sluggishness of the lumbering U.S. Army, which likes to go by the book. If they let General Tommy Franks from Central Command dictate the rate of preparations, Rumsfeld is afraid the U.S. Army could end up defeating itself - the diplomatic clock runs opposite to the operations and logistic clock; its hands move backward. The equipment, from mortar shells to hospitals, is being accumulated, but the political time is running out. Unless the army learns to strike while the iron is hot, all the amassed hardware could be too cold to use.

Planning is one of the two main subjects of concern to the Bush administration on the eve of the action against Saddam. The second is marketing. Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, offered this crushing bit of business administration savvy to explain the belated start of the Bush propaganda offensive until last week: "From a marketing point of view," he said, "you don't introduce new products in August." Your target audience is on vacation, and couldn't care less.

The same holds true for the sales division, but in the manufacturing realm, all is buzzing along. Franks, whose command post is in Florida but whose forces are in Asia, was told to come up to Washington every two or three weeks, to deliver a progress report. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, told the next generation of the nation's military commanders, the students of the National War College, that he and three other senior men (Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld's deputy and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) hold daily discussions that extend from two to six hours, about the military campaign, which began in Afghanistan and will take place in other arenas over the "next five, 10, 15 years."

In its latest issue, the U.S. Marines journal shows what can be expected in the battle against an "enemy that fights according to the Koran." And the Air Force Magazine notes that "Keeping Saddam away from mass-destruction weapons requires patience, perseverance and an occasional bullet between the eyes."

The American system is prepared to endure arguments and discussion before a decision is made, but it will crush under its wheels anyone who, once the die is cast, obstinately refuses to fall into line. This led to the resignation of Cyrus Vance, the U.S. secretary of state who continued to expressed his qualifications about Jimmy Carter's decision to rescue the American hostages from the Tehran embassy in a military operation.

Life is full of surprises, George Mitchell - then a federal judge in Maine - used to say. In place of Vance, Carter appointed as his secretary of state the senator from Maine, Ed Muskie. Mitchell was suddenly offered - please respond by this time tomorrow - a chance to resign from the court and be appointed a senator in Muskie's place. If not for the (failed) operation in Iran, Mitchell would not have made it to Washington where he soon became the Democratic Party leader in the Senate, and in time, the (failed) key to a compromise between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Vance precedent now hovers over the head of Colin Powell, who is fighting against the current of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Bush is taking a good look at just what he has in his toolbox. It is certain that he will pull something out of it to use against Saddam. A little pin might be best - one that would burst the leadership bubble in Iraq without having to make a big bang. But if he finds only a jackhammer, Bush won't think twice about using it.