To anyone who’s followed foreign affairs for the last couple of decades, the names of the neoconservative hawks will be familiar–or, if you’re a liberal, chilling. Their eminence grise is Richard Perle, who serves simultaneously as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, a heretofore somnolent committee of foreign policy old-timers that Perle has refashioned into a key advisory group. Of all the hawks, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz probably has the most powerful job inside the Bush administration. A dozen others hold key posts at the State Department and the White House. Most are acolytes of Perle, and also Jewish, passionately pro-Israel, and pro-Likud. And all are united by a shared idea: that America should be unafraid to use its military power early and often to advance its interests and values. It is an idea that infuriates most members of the national security establishment at the Pentagon, State, and the CIA, who believe that America’s military force should be used rarely and only as a last resort, preferably in concert with allies.

The neocons have been clashing with the establishment since the 1970s. Back then, the consensus view among foreign policy elites was that the Cold War was an indefinite or perhaps even a permanent fact of world politics, to be managed with diplomacy and nuclear deterrence. The neocons argued for deliberately tipping the balance of power in America’s direction. Ronald Reagan championed their ideas, and brought a number of neocons into his administration, including Perle and Wolfowitz. Reagan’s huge defense buildup and harsh, even provocative, rhetoric contributed significantly to running the Soviet military-industrial complex into the ground.The president went for the Hail Mary pass–whatever the dangers–and it worked.

During the Gulf War, the hawks urged President George H.W. Bush to ignore the limits of his U.N. mandate, roll the tanks into Baghdad, and bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime. Bush sided with the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell (the embodiment of the establishment, who had advised Bush against liberating Kuwait), and left Saddam in power. The neocons have been saying I told you so ever since.

In the 1990s, as the Balkans descended into civil war, this same establishment urged President Clinton to proceed with caution. After several years of carnage, Clinton finally broke with the experts and launched air strikes against Bosnia, then Kosovo. Many conservative Republicans criticized Clinton at the time, but the neocons, despite their loathing for the president, supported his efforts. And rightly so: American action ended the bloodshed and brought stability to a key region of Europe with practically no loss of American life.

Again and again, for more than two decades, the neocon hawks have called it right. But they’ve gotten a lot wrong, too. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, they portrayed the U.S.S.R. as a menacing giant about to overwhelm us, when in fact–we now know–it was already headed for collapse, and its downfall had more to do with its own terminal rot than anything America did. They cheered on (and in some cases aided) bloody proxy wars in Central America and Africa that did little to hasten the Soviets’ demise, but plenty to brutalize entire populations and tarnish America’s image abroad. Neocons led the successful effort to kill Bush senior’s policy, fashioned by the establishment, of conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on freezing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank–a policy that seems, in the wake of recent bloodshed in the Middle East, visionary. Even on Iraq the neocons’ record has been marred by errors of judgment and manifest recklessness and dishonesty. Their favored means of toppling Saddam is a CIA-created opposition leader, Ahmed Chalabi, a glib exile who hasn’t lived in Iraq since he was a teenager and has no discernable support, let alone control over armed forces, inside the country. In the aftermath of September 11, neocons repeatedly tried to tie Saddam to either the World Trade Center attacks or the anthrax mailings.The evidence for such a connection was always slight to nonexistent, which they understood. But they made the argument anyway.That’s how they operate.

While arguments for and against invading Iraq continue, preparations for an attack are well underway. The Pentagon is moving troops and armaments to U.S.-allied Arab emirates that ring the Persian Gulf.The State Department is getting serious about organizing and uniting the Iraqi opposition. Diplomats are discussing with allies like Turkey and Kuwait the role they would play in a U.S. attack. There is talk of a military assault on Iraq as early as this winter, though a more likely target date is 12 to 18 months from now. (With victory scheduled in time for the ’04 elections? Perish the thought!) Whatever the date, some kind of war seems increasingly certain–and probably wise, for the hawks have a much better argument for attacking Iraq than many people imagine. But with their peculiar mix of strategic vision, recklessness, and intellectual dishonesty, they’re the last people who should be in charge of carrying it out.

Deciding whether or not we should topple Saddam raises a number of questions that we are in a painfully poor position to answer. How close is Saddam to having weapons of mass destruction? How long will our deterrents hold him in check? How resilient would his regime be against sustained military force? And, perhaps most important, what geopolitical collateral damage would result, even if we were successful? Anyone who claims to have the answers is either a liar or a fool.

Frank Anderson is neither. As the former chief of the Near East division of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (which runs the agency’s clandestine efforts), he is a certified member of the national security establishment. When asked a question, he pauses, sorting through the many complexities, before giving an answer that is balanced, hedged, and honest. Anderson told me that Saddam could probably be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction should he acquire them. “He probably will be further along the way to having a weapon of massive destruction. [But] I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be telling the story of ‘and he used it.’ The bad news is that if I’m wrong, I’m wrong big time.” Anderson worries about the neocons’ readiness to employ cowboy tactics to bring down Saddam, a concern evidently rooted in his own experience running clandestine operations–and witnessing how often things go awry.

Richard Perle could not be more different. Dubbed the “Prince of Darkness” during the Reagan years for his hatred of the Soviets and his eagerness to confront them, he radiates a cool, effortless intelligence which is both cocky and oracular. He doesn’t know many of the details about Iraq or the Middle East. But, he works you like a used car salesman, avoiding questions he’d prefer not to or cannot answer, responding to uncomfortable queries (what if Saddam’s Republican Guards stay loyal to him and fight?) with best case scenarios (don’t worry, they won’t). When asked what would happen if America encountered an embittered civilian population after fighting a grisly battle for Baghdad, Perle replied with a question: “Suppose the Iraqis are dancing in the streets after Saddam is gone?” His arguments tend to rest on abstractions and mechanistic reasoning: Saddam is bad. Ergo the Iraqis hate Saddam. Ergo they like us. That might be true. But if such arguments were chairs you would hear them creaking beneath you.

Perle’s case for invading Iraq, which mirrors that of other hawks, is basically an escalating series of true or false propositions that leads inexorably toward massive military confrontation: Do you believe that Saddam Hussein is an evil tyrant who would use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies if he got them? Check. Do you believe he is trying to acquire nuclear or biological weapons and the means to deliver them? Check. If so, doesn’t it stand to reason that he will eventually succeed in getting them? Check. Aren’t we then obligated to stop him? Check! Sooner, rather than later? Check!!

The trouble is that this is a syllogism–one conspicuously short on details about Iraq, geopolitics, or anything else. And yet the logic is still pretty compelling, an impression that only grows when you talk to his critics. While they can point to an endless number of pitfalls and hurdles that the hawks either gloss over or ignore, they’re less able to break apart the tight chain of reasoning that gets the hawks on their war footing.

Judith Yaphe, for one, a career CIA intelligence analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., thinks the costs of attacking Saddam probably outweigh the benefits. But when I asked her whether Saddam was as dangerous as the hawks maintain, her reply was not so different from theirs. “I’m of the school that says this guy had better never have [weapons of mass destruction] because I don’t know what he’d do. You can’t ignore him,” she told me. “[Costs aside] you’ve gotta take him out because if you don’t you’re going to have to continue to live with this festering wound and I don’t have much confidence that it can be done short of something significant. I don’t think that you just rely on a little covert action. This isn’t Mission Impossible.” In other words, Yaphe’s underlying assumptions about Saddam are not so different from those of the hawks. She’s just better informed and more cautious.

Since the end of the Gulf War, U.S. policy on Iraq has been premised on two notions. First, that we would never again accept Saddam Hussein’s regime as just another player in the international state system. Second, that Saddam was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction and that we could not, and would not, let him do so. In the early 1990s, we quite reasonably assumed his regime could not last long in the face of his loss of Kuwait and heavy international economic sanctions–an assumption, of course, that proved entirely wrong. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. was preoccupied with the Middle Eastern peace process and the Balkans. It’s easy to second guess America’s inattention to Iraq, as the hawks do. But at the time, these issues were more pressing. And as long as the UNSCOM inspectors remained in Iraq and Saddam could be sufficiently prevented from procuring weapons of mass destruction, the status quo seemed tenable. The strategy of keeping Saddam “in a box,” as Clinton officials liked to put it, made sense.

But as early as 1996 and 1997, this was no longer clearly true. Saddam’s regime was thriving under sanctions, even as his people suffered under them (a condition he could have alleviated, but didn’t). As their condition deteriorated, so too did the U.N. Security Council’s support for maintaining the U.S.-backed sanctions. We were in the box now just as much as Saddam was. And time was on his side, not ours.

In late 1998, the other shoe finally dropped: Iraq expelled UNSCOM weapons inspectors. The U.S. and Great Britain responded with a thunderous four-day bombardment of cruise missiles and air strikes–Operation Desert Fox. But when the bombing was over, the inspectors were still gone and have never returned. From that point on, U.S. policy was at war with itself. There were (and are) only two real options: to accept Saddam as a regional power (and thus to risk having his weapons and control of oil dictate terms in the Middle East and elsewhere), or take him out.

The hawks began pressing the case for overthrowing Saddam in 1998 with a letter to the Clinton administration drafted by Perle and signed by 40 neocon luminaries. Many of the signatories became advisers to then-Gov. George W. Bush. Some won top jobs in the new administration. Hawks include, at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, William Luti, and Harold Rhode; at the Office of the Vice President, Lewis “Scooter” Libby and John Hannah; at the State Department, David Wurmser; and at the National Security Council, former Gen. Wayne Downing.

The hawks came in wanting to put regime change at or near the top of the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda. What they didn’t figure on was how much of a hurdle Colin Powell, and his deputy, Richard Armitage, would present (despite Armitage’s having signed Perle’s ’98 manifesto). In bureaucratic battles over the summer of 2001, Powell and Armitage made sure that “regime change,” though nominally administration policy, lacked teeth.

All of that changed after September 11. Suddenly the prospect of Saddam slipping a dirty bomb to terrorists to blow up in, say, Milwaukee, didn’t seem so far-fetched. It also became clear that our efforts to contain Saddam–sanctions that wound up hurting Iraqi civilians, U.S. troops on Saudi soil–were ideal recruitment tools for Osama bin Laden. Removing Saddam was back at the top of the administration’s agenda. There was even talk, briefly, of launching an attack on Iraq prior to moving against Afghanistan. Cooler heads prevailed. But by last winter, the Bush administration had come around, with the State Department securely–if reluctantly–on board.

This presented a question that most hawks had not seriously considered. Namely, how exactly to bring down Saddam. The war in Afghanistan offered a compelling model. With a combination of precision assault from the air, special forces on the ground, and the aid of local insurgents ready to do some of the heavy lifting, the U.S. broke the Taliban with surprising ease. In fact, the Afghan campaign bore a striking resemblance to a plan that Iraq hawks had been pitching to Washington for several years: Arm the Iraqi opposition and let them advance on Saddam under cover of U.S. air power. This plan no longer seemed so far-fetched. It didn’t require the lengthy pre-positioning of forces that the Joint Chiefs demanded. And it allowed for quick action, before the anger and intensity of September 11 faded.

But the closer officials and military experts looked at the plans that the hawks put forward, the more holes they found. For while the hawks possess a real talent for crafting bold theories, the same cannot be said for their ability to execute in the real world. A striking example on the diplomatic front was their strategy, eagerly adopted by the president, of not engaging in peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. Such efforts, the hawks reasoned, were not worth the political capital and would only detract from bigger priorities like bringing down Saddam. The result, however, is that the U.S. was not there to keep the violence from spinning out of control. The fallout from the bloodletting has almost certainly delayed the war with Iraq that the hawks had hoped to be waging by now.

Despite stark disagreements within the administration about the costs and benefits of toppling Saddam’s regime, both sides agree on some key points about how a military campaign would unfold. Much of northern Iraq is already controlled by the Kurds, who have some 70,000 armed and trained paramilitaries and are wholly beyond Saddam’s authority. southern Iraq has a restive but unarmed Shi’a population held in check by garrisons of some of the regime’s least reliable troops. Any invasion would require a substantial number of U.S. ground troops in the south. But even staunch critics believe that the United States would quickly roll up the north and the south of the country with relative ease and few casualties. Then the U.S. forces would move toward Baghdad and its environs–and that’s where the agreement breaks down.

Most of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard and key military installations would be in and around Baghdad and his nearby hometown of Tikrit. The hawks assume that when U.S. troops converge on Baghdad, few of these troops would choose to go down with the regime. Most would defect or simply flee.

Again, the hawks may be right. Recently, I sat down with Najib Salhi, an Iraqi general who defected in 1995 and now heads the Iraqi Free Officers Movement. Salhi has been living in the Washington area since 2001 and like many exiles in recent months he is, in effect, auditioning for the coveted role as Washington’s favored exile leader. Salhi insists that Saddam’s regime is far weaker than we imagine. This is not a surprising statement coming from an exile eager for United States. support. But Salhi added something that did surprise me. One source of Saddam’s strength, he says, is that he has convinced many in the Republican Guard and his inner circle that the U.S. doesn’t really want him gone. “Don’t worry about what you see on TV,” Salhi described Saddam as saying. “I have a special relationship with the U.S. I am very strong with them. They want me to stay as leader of Iraq. I am like a buffer zone between the Arabian countries and Iran. I have to contain Iran. Iran is Shi’a and extremist. I have to contain them. I have been told to attack other Arab countries and keep them in their place. Just ignore what you see on TV and in the media.”

One need not believe Saddam’s story, or even Salhi’s, to see that the United States has, over the years, given such mixed messages to potential plotters in Saddam’s ranks that they might reasonably conclude that the U.nited States really hasn’t decided whether it wants him there or not. If, however, we were to act boldly to remove him, Saddam’s military could well abandon him in droves before the fighting got too heavy.

But what if that didn’t happen? What if Saddam’s troops remained loyal? Perle didn’t have an entirely satisfactory answer to this point. Instead, he insisted that without access to his ports, and the ability to sell his oil, Saddam would not be able to hunker down in Baghdad: “I think we can put him in a situation where he’s got to try to assert authority over his own territory. And when he does, he’s highly vulnerable, his forces are highly vulnerable.”

The problem with this reasoning is that it assumes Saddam would court his own destruction on the least favorable terms. Would Saddam send his outnumbered Republican Guard out into the open to be annihilated by American airpower? Or would he hold them back in his redoubts in Baghdad, place his soldiers and heavy artillery among civilians, and dare the United States to come in and dislodge him?

This sort of ugly, worst-case scenario is precisely what the professional military fears and insists on preparing for.In an attack on a metropolis like Baghdad, the U.S. could have far less of the advantages of its high-tech military and precision-guided bombs.If the Iraqi army were spread throughout the city, the toll of civilian casualties would simply be too high to destroy the Iraqi military from the air.Going in with the sort of overwhelming power that the professional military envisions is actually the only strategy that would make Perle’s waiting-game scenario feasible. If the U.S. invaded and bottled up Saddam and a portion of the Republican Guard in Baghdad, war planners could then survey the rest of the country and gauge the reaction of the civilian population.If it was generally positive (or at least quiescent) we could likely hold back and wait them out.But if one of the darker scenarios began to unfold–a restive civilian population, a Kurdish declaration of independence, an Iranian mobilization to the east–then we would have to choke off resistance fast.Rather than go in with relatively few troops–as the hawks propose–and risk being drawn into a volatile and dangerous waiting game outside Baghdad, the professional military wants to go in with overwhelming force –at least 200,000 troops–to do whatever is required in Baghdad rapidly, and on our terms.Many lives would certainly still be lost; but there would be fewer Iraqi civilians and American GIs among them.Equally important, moving in with overwhelming force would make a quick American victory a near certainty, greatly increasing the odds that the Iraqi army would remove Saddam before a final assault became necessary.

Part of this difference of opinion stems from the starkly different concepts of warfare held by the hawks and the military. Hawks envision a quicker, more agile, make-it-up-on-the-fly model of warfare–one which actually showed itself rather well in Afghanistan. Simply put, they don’t subscribe to the Powell Doctrine. But that’s not all that’s in play. The hawks’ first priority is not how it is done or even that it is done right–it is ensuring that the opportunity to finish off Saddam does not, once again, slip away. More than anything else, they are animated by the desire to get America into the fight and committed, even if that means doing so without the full commitment of manpower and military hardware that may eventually prove necessary or fully apprising the American people of what they may be getting into. And that is what has the uniformed services nervous: that the civilians at the Pentagon and the White House may bow to the hawks’ wishes and attempt to do this on the cheap. “The fear that a lot of us have is that a really honest debate is not being conducted,” says a recently retired career officer with experience working the Iraq file. “There’s a sense among a number of us that the American public doesn’t understand the party they’re being invited to. This is going to cost big bucks. There’s going to be lots of bad things going to happen. A lot of terrible things you’re going to see on TV.”

Another terrible thing critics worry about is that attacking Saddam might rattle Arab populations in nearby countries, to the point where regimes in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia could fall. The hawks insist that any instability will be fleeting and easily weathered, and that a demonstration of American resolve will firm up wobbly allies. Again, we are in best-case-scenario land here. Press the point further, and the hawks do a clever bit of intellectual jujitsu, insisting that it would be a good thing if the repressive governments of Egypt or Saudi Arabia fell. “Mubarak is no great shakes,” says Perle of the Egyptian president. “Surely we can do better than Mubarak.” I put the same question to Perle’s colleague from the Reagan administration and fellow hawk, Ken Adelman. Did he think wobbly or upended regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia were worth the price of removing Saddam? “All the better if you ask me.”

These neoconservatives are not just being glib. They see toppling Saddam as the first domino to fall, with other corrupt Middle Eastern regimes following–just as the fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by the collapse of communism.

Here, as in so many other cases, the hawks have an amazing vision, but a deeply flawed grasp of how to act operationally and in the moment. It may not be in our long-term interests to ally ourselves with corrupt authoritarian governments in the Arab world. But it’s quite possible that these governments, which are at least nominal allies of the U.S., will be replaced by corrupt authoritarian regimes that hate us. Moreover, the U.S. military understandably does not want Saudi Arabia disintegrating at its rear while it’s in the midst of an operation in Iraq.

What the national security establishment does want is for the other Middle East regimes to be brought in as part of the anti-Saddam alliance. The hawks scorn such coalition building as a brake on our ability to act with moral clarity and decision. We’re right and we don’t need anyone else’s permission, is the underlying mindset. But combining an intense diplomatic effort with military action is not about getting other countries’ permission. It’s about covering your flanks. One of the reasons American force worked in Kosovo in 1999 is that the U.S. had Slobodan Milosevic cornered not only militarily but diplomatically. He had no one to turn to, to play off against us. Given the state of opinion in the Arab world today, we probably cannot expect open support from the Saudis or the Egyptians or other frontline Arab states. But we do need an understanding with them because we cannot afford to see Crown Prince Abdullah materialize in Baghdad with a “peace plan” just as we are readying our assault.

The same goes for the State Department’s efforts to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq. The hawks tend to view weapons inspections as a contemptible joke, a half-measure that will bog us down with kibitzing at the U.N. and rob us of our justification for invasion. Properly done, however, inspections are not a way to avoid war but to build the ground work for it. Before a single soldier hits the ground in Iraq, the U.S. should demand a virtually air-tight inspection regime–not the half-measures the U.N. is currently negotiating with Saddam. Our European allies would oppose this strenuously, as will Russia and China. But it is well worth drawing them into that conversation, because the force and logic of our argument is quite strong. Once the concept of inspections is granted, the need to make them effective is difficult to refute. If Saddam were to accept a truly robust inspections regime–one which would allow the inspectors to roam the country more or less at will–we will have achieved our aim of neutralizing the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But, of course, when he doesn’t agree–and he won’t–then we will have forced our allies to confront the reality of Iraqi intransigence head-on. Some may still oppose our imminent military action. But others might join us, and that will make us stronger.

Taking our time, deploying large numbers of troops and weaponry, working the diplomatic channels, defusing possible sources of opposition from European states and the Arab world, all will help accomplish another aim. It will telegraph our seriousness, and by so doing increase the chance that domestic forces will overthrow (or at least weaken) Saddam before our soldiers even have to begin an attack.

It’s difficult to imagine that the establishment and national security bureaucracies would have brought us to our current and correct focus on Iraq. But it’s even more clear that the hawks’ record of breezy planning, reckless prediction, and indifferent fidelity to the truth makes them unfit to be the ones in control of how the job gets done. The hawks have a vision. But as the folks in uniform are so fond of saying, “Hope is not a plan.” Getting rid of Saddam really is necessary. But it has to be done right. So, Mr. President, when the time comes for you to make a decision about Iraq, talk with Paul Wolfowitz and let him tell you what the goal should be. Escort him to the door and lock it behind you. Then sit down for a serious talk with Colin Powell.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, author of the Talking Points Memo, is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.