To War or Not To War, That Is the Question
The United States has had a bad few days.
It had appeared that Franco-German insistence that weapons inspections continue, despite reports of limited cooperation on Baghdad's part and the presence of some weapons that clearly were proscribed, was on the way to being managed. The behavior of French and German leaders (not to mention Belgians) on beginning a NATO planning process on behalf of Turkey had put the United States in an excellent position. Their vetoes in the 16-3 vote on the issue made those countries look totally rigid and unreasonable; more important, it made them appear isolated and unilateral, while the United States appeared to have broad support and to be acting multilaterally. France's inflexibility within the U.N. Security Council was being turned against it.
Then the United States ran into a series of public relations setbacks. The American media in particular portrayed the outcome of the Feb. 14 Security Council meeting as a broad repudiation of the U.S. position. While anti-French sentiment intensified in the United States and polls showed growing support for going to war without a second U.N. resolution, the weekend arrived with the sense that, for better or worse, the United States was relatively isolated. The problem hadn't been solved, but then it hadn't worsened much either.
The weekend was another story. Reports of worldwide demonstrations against a war dominated the global media. Though a total of 2.5 million demonstrators -- the number that has been estimated globally -- represents an infinitesimal fraction of the world's population, it was sufficient not only to energize the media into an obsessive focus but to shake up policymakers and military officials alike.
The nightmare for U.S. policymakers and military leaders is a repeat of the Vietnam War. For the serving military in particular, which maintains a group memory of that conflict, fighting a war without public support remains the one thing that none of them wants to do. In a scene redolent of Vietnam, where Richard Nixon crushed the dovish George McGovern in an election that hinged on the war -- but in which the persistence of public demonstrations created the impression of overwhelming opposition to the war -- policymakers and the military suddenly were hit by the specter of a Vietnam that was unpopular even before it began. The situation was even worse for Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, where the demonstrations were massive and the polls held little comfort.
The anti-war demonstrations were effective, but it is not clear that they have redefined the situation. The problem that the United States has is, in the first instance, military: It has deployed the bulk of its striking power to the Middle East; it cannot leave it there indefinitely. A host of other problems, apart from the fact that other potential trouble spots cannot be dealt with effectively while this force is concentrated in the Persian Gulf, also are rearing their heads. For example, the U.S. military depends on reservists. It is one thing to mobilize reservists for war and quite another to mobilize, deploy and then have them do nothing. It is politically difficult. It is also difficult to keep five carrier battle groups in position indefinitely -- they need maintenance and rotation.
The weather window also is closing in, and this is not a trivial problem. By the end of April at the latest, the temperatures in Iraq will be rising, particularly in the south, into the 90s daily. Apart from chemical warfare suits -- which are unbearable in such weather and merely wretched in other weather -- other systems degrade rapidly as heat rises. The United States must conclude this war by about April 15 or else postpone until the fall. Some have argued that the United States can solve the problem by fighting only at night. True, so long as Saddam Hussein cooperates and doesn't attack during the day.
There is another constraint: the moon. During the opening days of operations, U.S. aircraft will knock out Iraq's electronic air defense system. They cannot knock out the optical system -- human eyes. On a moonless night, it is hard to see, but with a full moon, it is quite possible to see and to fire at aircraft. Even more important, the United States will be carrying out extensive special operations on the nights surrounding the start of war. One of the advantages of the U.S. military is that it "owns" the night: Its equipment and training are optimized for night fighting. But with moonlight, a great deal of the invisibility upon which U.S. special ops depend disappears.
The next moonless night, or night when the moon rises after 4 a.m., will be Feb. 27. The moon re-emerges on March 4. The United States does not want to attack in mid-month, with the full moon. The next open window will come at the end of March. If the weather sets a terminus date of about April 15, that will allow for only a two-week operation before problems might begin to arise from the weather.
The United States therefore appears to have these military choices. First, launch the attack in the Feb. 26-March 4 period. Or launch the attack in mid-March, under much less advantageous conditions. It could launch the attack at the end of March, hoping that the operation ends quickly and that summer heat doesn't come early. Or it could postpone the invasion, bring the troops home and redeploy in the fall -- or simply leave them in the region for the summer.
Postponing the invasion is not a likely strategy:
1. This would make the United States appear weak and indecisive in the view of the Islamic world. It would generate greater confidence in Osama bin Laden's analysis of the weakness of U.S. forces, increase recruiting for al Qaeda and undermine the entire psychological basis of the American strategy.
2. It would not generate any increased support for the United States in general. Those who demonstrated against the war are, in general, opposed to the United States on a host of issues, of which Iraq is merely the most salient. The idea that abandoning the war would generate substantial support for the United States is dubious. Moreover, the value of such support is unclear.
3. U.S. allies in the region -- such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, which have risked a substantial amount by participating in the war buildup -- would be left in a highly exposed state, both from external threats and internal instability. The United States would be regarded as a highly unreliable ally.
4. Hussein, rather than being contained, would perceive that there was no effective limit on his behavior and would begin to exploit his opening.
Here, then, is the U.S. problem. Washington must have regime change Iraq. Regardless of whether the United States would like to build a broad coalition, it is running out of time on the diplomatic process. If the process continues much past March 1, the option of war will begin to disappear and the pressure on Iraq will diffuse. The United States either will spend the summer off-balance, with its forces concentrated in the Persian Gulf and idle, or it will withdraw. It is unlikely that it would be able to redeploy in six months, given the new political configuration in the region.
It is no accident that a French proposal suggests another report from chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix on March 14. The French, in this apparently innocent proposal, know they are undermining the U.S. military option. It is also no accident that the United States is insisting that Feb. 28, when Blix is scheduled to give his next report, is the date upon which Washington is insisting as the final decision point. If France wins, the United States either has to fight the war under less-than-optimal conditions or postpone the attack. President George W. Bush is not going to start a war at a time when his commanders are saying that it might entail additional risk. If anything went wrong, the president couldn't survive that call.
So the situation is this. The United States no longer can avoid war; even if it wanted to -- the situation has gone too far. Washington is running out of time to wage the war. The best time to go will be the end of February and the beginning of March; later is possible, but this option increases the risk of casualties and failure, and the benefit of delay is primarily diplomatic. If France opposes on March 1, it will oppose on March 15. At the same time, the situation in Europe has improved over the past 24 hours. French President Jacques Chirac's assault on Eastern European states for siding with Washington undermined his standing as the voice of reason -- while the revelation that the German government knew about Iraqi stockpiles of smallpox months ago undermines Berlin's claim that it needs proof of a material breach. To that extent, the public relations war is not entirely hopeless for the United States.
In a sense, Washington already has delayed too long. The United States has been talking about this war since last spring. It has allowed opposition to the war to gel. Paradoxically, the very thing the Europeans have accused the United States of -- haste and unilateralism -- is about the only thing the United States isn't guilty of; the Bush administration has taken nearly a year and endless diplomacy to come to this point. In doing so, it has lost the diplomatic initiative that it held after the Sept. 11 attacks. It also has lost any possibility of strategic surprise.
The only other options -- a coup in Baghdad or Hussein's resignation -- have been dramatically reduced as a possibility by the events of the last few days. Hussein, who consistently appears to believe that Europe would save him in the end, as well as believing that the United States really is afraid of taking casualties, now seems more convinced than ever that, if U.S. forces take casualties, the Europeans will rush in with a cease-fire proposal and Washington -- under pressure from a public unwilling to bear the burden of war and of an anti-U.S. alliance rising up -- will accept it.
Meanwhile, the possibilities for a negotiated settlement have declined dramatically. Indeed, if the diplomatic struggle continues, another window of opportunity will not open. It is doubtful that the global anti-war demonstrations encouraged potential coupsters in Baghdad to take risks. Moreover, the arrest of the commander of the Iraqi military (who is Qusai Hussein's father-in-law) signals that Hussein is beginning the traditional process of shuffling his staff -- arresting some of them and shooting others prior to a crisis, in order to disrupt any covert plans that Washington might think it has in place.
The United States therefore is in a situation in which it cannot avoid war, in which diplomatic complexity remains substantial, and in which the enemy, Iraq, is fully alerted and prepared. Unless Washington's core assumption is true -- that the Iraqi army will collapse under first assault -- the circumstances for this war are not particularly auspicious.
On the other hand, if the United States wins a quick and relatively easy victory, the events leading up to this conflict will not be long remembered. Few will recall, for example, the acrimony -- domestic and international -- that ripped the United States prior to the 1991 war. Success solves many problems. Given that the United States is now in a position from which it cannot easily retreat -- indeed, from which it does not want to retreat -- a complete and rapid military victory is the only solution to its problems. Or so the reasoning in Washington goes.