LIMASSOL, Cyprus — An interesting debate broke out in Washington last week about the possible war against Iraq. The discussion isn’t just about whether to go to war; it has morphed into a quarrel about whether top Republicans are breaking ranks with U.S. President George W. Bush and seeking to reverse the march toward war.

Of particular interest was a New York Times’ report that prominent war critics include Brent Scowcroft, former President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, and Henry Kissinger, former President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state. The report even stated that current Secretary of State Colin Powell is doing all he can to “outflank administration hawks and slow the rush to war.”

But war opponents seeking comfort in the disarray among Republican hawks may find themselves disappointed in two of the most prominent cases. Kissinger appears to be cautiously in favor of war, not against it. And Scowcroft’s opposition is hardly front-page news: He is one of the Saudi-connected, pro-Arab oilmen who were prominent in both Bush administrations but have been on the defensive since 15 Saudis took part in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The debate intensified last week with an antiwar opinion piece by Scowcroft. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd characterized it, “issues between the two Bush presidents spilled into public view (Aug. 15) when that most faithful family retainer, Brent Scowcroft, wrote a jaw-dropping Op-Ed piece in The Wall Street Journal headlined ‘Don’t Attack Saddam.’ “

An Aug. 16 Times news story listed Kissinger among the doves. “In an opinion article published on Monday in The Washington Post, Mr. Kissinger made a long and complex argument about the international complications of any military campaign,” the Times wrote.

The list of these Republican policy heavyweights suggested, to some, that President Bush is too politically isolated to launch a war. As columnist William Saletan stated in Slate.com: “When Bush and (national security adviser Condoleezza) Rice have to quarrel with unpersuaded fellow hawks over whether the case for an imminent invasion of Iraq is persuasive, it manifestly isn’t.”

But consider the opposition. Kissinger declined to be interviewed for an Aug. 16 Times story on the critics, but unless he is whispering something different off the record, his recent comments seem to lean in favor of war — a matter that conservative commentators have been furiously trumpeting since the Times story.

Writing in the Post on Aug. 12, he argued that “policies that deterred the Soviet Union for 50 years are unlikely to work against Iraq’s capacity to cooperate with terrorist groups. Suicide bombing has shown that the calculations of jihad fighters are not those of the Cold War principals.”

Furthermore, Kissinger indicated that there are dangers in waiting to strike. In a television interview, he stated, “if there is no action (against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) now, that means that we are saying, we will wait until these weapons are used and react to an actual provocation,” the conservative Weekly Standard stated. “That is going to produce, if it comes, horrendous casualties.”

As for Scowcroft, his opposition to war is hardly the jaw-dropper that the columnist Dowd suggests. As the New Republic, a liberal political magazine, reported in December, Scowcroft has been “a vocal champion of the Saudis, who has since been installed as a director of Pennzoil and Qualcomm, firms heavily invested in Riyadh.”

The former aide spent much of the past year attempting to undermine U.S. support for Israel, under Saudi pressure. In fact, the New Republic reported, Scowcroft, the elder Bush and the current president met in Kennebunkport, Maine, last year to discuss ways to reassure the Saudis about American policy toward Israel. “There the former president did something unprecedented,” the magazine reported. “With the current president apparently in the room, George Sr. picked up the phone, called (Saudi Crown Prince) Abdullah, and assured him that Bush Jr.’s ‘heart is in the right place’ and that he could be counted on ‘to do the right thing.’ “

This leaves Powell as the highest-ranking current and former administration official who has telegraphed his opposition to war. Yet even here, Powell’s opposition is hardly a surprise.

Scarred by Vietnam as a young man, Powell resolved that future wars should never be fought halfheartedly, without the support of the nation. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War, he lent his name to the doctrine of using overwhelming force to crush the foe (the opposite of the campaign waged against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan).

But suggestions that Powell is a reluctant warrior fit with the portrait of him in Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor’s 1995 Persian Gulf War history, “The Generals’ War.” Soon after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Bush and his advisers gathered to decide how to respond. Powell kept resisting then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney’s calls for military options, and he instead insisted on the need to get political support for whatever action was taken — a matter that is not the concern of a general in a democracy. Finally Cheney snapped at him, “I want some (war) options, general,” and Powell replied, “Yes, sir.”

With the Times’ report, Powell has found himself the target of wrath from some conservative pundits. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote that Powell and his aides “will soon have to decide whom they wish to serve — the president, or his opponents.”

Bush insists that he has yet to make up his mind about whether to go to war against Iraq. But judging by the sound and fury of the debate in the media, he won’t be pondering the matter in silence.

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