WASHINGTON — Top Bush Administration officials refused Wednesday to indicate to lawmakers whether they would attack Iraq in the absence of further provocation, and one senator complained he was concerned that "drift, muddle and confusion" are seeping into the President's Persian Gulf policies.
A closed-door congressional briefing by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Secretary of State James A. Baker III seemed to do little to allay the concerns of many lawmakers who complain that the Administration seems to have no clear plan, or at least is not willing to share it with Congress.
Congressional anxiety over the imminent possibility of war has grown in recent days following statements by senior Administration officials that no further Iraqi provocations would be needed to justify military action by the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, as well as new evidence that American hostages in Iraq are being mistreated by their captors, already constitute sufficient grounds for a military response, the officials have asserted.
Lawmakers at both briefings said that they sought assurances from Baker and Cheney that the United States would not launch an attack on Iraq without consulting first with Congress. But as they have in the past, the two men declined to give those assurances, arguing that to do so would tip off the Iraqis about U.S. plans.
Concerned that war with Iraq could erupt after Congress adjourns for the year next week, House and Senate leaders formed a bipartisan committee of lawmakers to stay in consultation with the Administration during the adjournment. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) also said Congress would be called into session if needed to deal with the gulf crisis.
During the briefing, Baker and Cheney reportedly told lawmakers that as economic sanctions begin to inflict real hardships on Iraq, the danger of an Iraqi attack may also increase. Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the officials told the lawmakers that one possible scenario is an Iraqi attack against Israel as an "act of desperation" aimed at splitting the U.S.-Arab alliance against Baghdad.
However, most of the lawmakers who were briefed by Baker and Cheney complained that neither official would indicate what the Administration's next moves in the gulf crisis will be.
"They just kept saying what they've been saying all along, that they're not ruling anything in and they're not ruling anything out," said Rep. Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.). "They added nothing new at all."
"It was just a plain vanilla briefing," added Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who attended a separate session Baker and Cheney held for senators. "No new ground was broken."
"If there is an Iraqi provocation and they decide to respond to it with force, my guess is they'll do it first and consult later," said Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
But Aspin added that neither official would indicate whether the Administration would resort to force in the absence of an Iraqi provocation. "They are just not answering those kinds of questions," he said.
However, Hyde, who along with Aspin is a member of the group that will be consulting with the Administration on the gulf crisis during adjournment, said that there was "no saber-rattling" in the briefings by Baker and Cheney.
"It's a holding action and our troops are still in a defensive posture. . . . There was no hint of initiating any military action against Saddam Hussein," he added.
While most lawmakers clearly are worried about the possibility that the Administration might decide to attack Iraq, concern also appears to be growing that the current stalemate is beginning to work against the alliance of Arab and Western forces aligned against Iraq.
"I don't know how long they can continue this policy, whether they can go through Thanksgiving and Christmas and have this policy last," said Rep. Larry Smith (D-Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "At some point, the Rubicon (for military action) is going to have to be crossed."
Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), arguing on the Senate floor that Congress should formally declare war on Iraq, said that, after a "skillful" beginning, the Administration's confrontation with Iraq now appears to be faltering.
"I begin to see serious cracks in the edifice. Drift, muddle and confusion are beginning to replace the confident spirit of August. Now we seem uncertain what to do with the forces we have amassed," said Wallop, who also urged the Administration to decide on the course it plans to follow in the gulf.