Smoke and Mirrors: The United States, Iraq and Deception

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Surprise is essential to war, and deception is the foundation of surprise. During World War II, Allied planning was protected by what Winston Churchill referred to as "a bodyguard of lies."

Those lies, it could be persuasively argued, were what made Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, successful. That bodyguard of lies hid the basic operational plan from German eyes. The strategy was known to everyone: At some point, the Allies would carry out an amphibious assault on the French coast. The Germans also knew that an invasion could be expected at any time. What they did not know — due to a plan called Operation Fortitude — was that plans for a U.S. 3rd army attack at Pas de Calais were fictional. The real invasion was to take place at Normandy, involving other forces. Because of Operation Fortitude, the Germans knew that an invasion was coming and roughly when the invasion would occur — but they were so wrong about where it would take place that they held their armor in reserve to protect the Pas de Calais, rather than hurl it at the attackers in Normandy.

Operation Fortitude offers two lessons. The first is to use all means necessary to confuse your enemy. The second, not nearly as frequently discussed, is that commanders must never allow themselves to become confused as to what the real plan is and — just as important — that the deception not extend so deeply and broadly that neither the troops nor the home audience is genuinely confused as to what is going on. At the broadest level, there was no confusion among the Allied troops and public as to the goal: unconditional surrender of the Axis powers. Many have criticized this goal, and others have said it was an unfortunate necessity designed to ensure Allied unity. It is frequently forgotten that the simplicity and the elegance of the goal kept Allied troops and the public from falling into cynical doubts about their leaders' true intentions. It was understood that the goal was unconditional surrender; the means were an invasion of France, an alliance with the Soviet Union and a strategic bombing campaign, and that the rest was best not discussed.

In Iraq, a very different "bodyguard of lies" has taken control of war planning. The operational and tactical levels of the war appear to be clearer than the war's strategic shape or even its purpose. It is unclear precisely why the war is being fought and what outcome is desired. There are two possible reasons for this confusion. The first is that the leaders might in fact be confused, but that is difficult to believe. The team around U.S. President George W. Bush not only is seasoned and skilled, but is haunted by Vietnam — a war in which the strategic goal never was clearly defined. It is hard to believe that the Bush team would commit the error of the Johnson administration — lack of clarity on strategic goals and, thus, inability to create operational congruence.

The second reason is more persuasive. The United States always has operated in the context of coalition warfare. In World War II, the coalition was strengthened by strategic clarity and the simplification of goals. At root, the one thing the Allies could agree on was the destruction of the Nazi regime and the occupation of Germany. U.S. grand strategy still is built on the idea of coalition warfare — of burden sharing — but the coalition the United States would like to construct for the upcoming war, something like what existed during Desert Storm, has such diverse and contradictory interests that there is no simple declaration of strategic goals that would unite the alliance. Quite the contrary, any such statement of goals would divide the allies dramatically — indeed, it would make alliance impossible. Therefore, the United States is searching for a justification that is persuasive, not true. In the process, Washington is neither building the coalition nor maintaining popular and political support for the war at home.

In a strategic sense, there is a very good and clear explanation for the war: Al Qaeda attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. There is no reason to believe there will not be additional and more intense attacks in the future. Fighting al Qaeda on a tactical level — hunting down the network on its own turf, team by team — is not only inefficient, it is probably ineffective. Certainly, given the geography of the Islamic world, even reaching in to the militants' networks has been impossible.

However, attacking and occupying Iraq achieves three things:

1. It takes out of the picture a potential ally for al Qaeda, one with sufficient resources to multiply the militant group's threat. Whether Iraq has been an ally in the past is immaterial — it is the future that counts.

2. It places U.S. forces in the strategic heart of the Middle East, capable of striking al Qaeda forces whenever U.S. intelligence identifies them.

3. Most important, it allows the United States to bring its strength —conventional forces — to bear on nation-states that are enablers or potential enablers of al Qaeda. This would undermine strategically one of the pillars of al Qaeda's capabilities: the willingness of established regimes to ignore al Qaeda operations within their borders.

From a U.S. standpoint, this is the strategic rationale for a war with Iraq. Or, to be more precise, if this is not the rationale, the purpose is the one thing a war's strategic goals should never be — a baffling secret.

This is not the explanation that has been given for the war's strategy. The Bush administration's central problem has been that it has not been able to tie its Iraq strategy in with its al Qaeda strategy. At first, the United States tried to make the case that there had been collaboration between al Qaeda and Iraq in the past, as if trying to prove that a crime had been committed that justified war. The justification, of course, was strategic — not what might have happened, but to prevent what might happen in the future. The administration then settled into a justification concerning weapons of mass destruction, creating the current uproar over whether an empty rocket could be construed as a justification for war.

From the beginning, the administration fell into the trap of treating a war as a criminal investigation. Imagine that after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made a speech declaring that he would hunt down every pilot who had attacked Pearl Harbor without warning and bring him to justice. In the ensuing insanity, the emphasis would have been on avoiding harm to innocent Japanese and others and implementing judicial procedures to make sure that only those directly involved in the attack were punished. When the United States made plans to land on Guadalcanal, it would be pointed out that the innocent people on Guadalcanal had done nothing to deserve the death and destruction that would rain down on them. Washington, rather than explaining the strategic rationale for the Guadalcanal operation, would charge the islanders with aiding the Japanese and then photograph a meeting between an islander and a Japanese agent in Prague. Officials then would claim that Guadalcanal possessed weapons that threatened the United States, and an inspection regime would be put in place.

The Guadalcanal islanders were infinitely less deserving of punishment than Saddam Hussein or the country he rules, but that completely misses the point. Wars are not about punishment; they are not legal proceedings. They are actions by nations against other nations designed to achieve national goals. The virtue of the Guadalcanal islanders was not the issue, nor the guilt of individual pilots at Pearl Harbor. Nor, indeed, was the war about whether the Japanese were the aggressors or, as they claimed, the victims of aggression. War is war, and is carried out by its own logic.

The Bush administration knows this, and it has excellent strategic reasons for wanting to conquer Iraq. The government has chosen not to enunciate those motives for a simple reason: If it did, many of the United States' allies would oppose the war. Washington's goal — the occupation of Iraq — would strengthen the United States enormously, and this is something that many inside Washington's coalition don't want to see happen. Therefore, rather than crisply stating the strategic goal, the government has tried to ensnare its allies in a web of pseudo-legalism. Rather than simply stating that Iraq, like Guadalcanal, is a strategic prize whose occupation will facilitate the war, it has tried to demonstrate that Hussein has violated some resolution or another. Hussein, no fool, has succeeded in confusing the issue endlessly. The point — that invading Iraq is in the U.S. national interest regardless of whether Hussein has a single weapon of mass destruction, is lost. This is about strategy, not guilt or innocence.

This has led the United States to deal with the current problem: What if Hussein leaves under his own steam? As Washington has allowed the issue to be defined, that should go a long way toward satisfying U.S. goals. From a strategic standpoint, of course, it would achieve nothing unless the United States was allowed to enter Iraq and base substantial forces there under its own control, to be used as it wishes.

The downside of all of this for the United States is that American public opinion, rather than buying into a strategic vision that has not been expressed, has accepted the public justification offered by the Bush administration. As recent polls have shown, the overwhelming majority of the public opposes a war if weapons of mass destruction are not found in Iraq. That, obviously, can change, but the price of building a coalition on a legal foundation is that it makes public support conditional as well.

There is an upside as well: The confusion over motives and intentions must baffle Iraq, too. Consider one example: The United States has indicated some interest in a settlement based on Hussein's resignation — what else could Washington say? This also would indicate something that Hussein fundamentally believes — that the United States is not eager for war. The more interest Washington shows in a deal, the less interested Baghdad will be, although he certainly will play it out for as long as possible.

Consider other examples from the operational level. U.S. officials said last week that they wanted five carriers in the Persian Gulf before beginning the war, yet only two are there now and it will take up to a month for the rest to arrive. British officials said recently that that the British 7 Brigade — the Desert Rats — would not be ready to participate in the war on time, although Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon later announced that nearly 30,000 troops, including the Desert Rats, would be deployed "over the days and weeks ahead." The United States is trying to survey Turkish air bases with which it already is familiar. From where we sit, the United States appears to be nowhere near ready to go to war. In fact, the entire buildup seems completely uncoordinated.

From Baghdad, Hussein sees all of this and might conclude that he has time — time to delay, time to move forces back into Baghdad, time to launch pre-emptive chemical attacks. From where he sits, it might look as if U.S. strategy is not genuinely committed to war and U.S. operational capabilities are so out of kilter that a war cannot be launched before summer.

The deception campaign at the operational level well could be working perfectly. Hitler thought he knew where the attack was coming from but was utterly wrong. Hussein might think that he knows where the attack is coming, but it might be that he thinks he has more time than he has. Deception on the operational level is a vital weapon.

However, deception on the strategic level is a double-edged sword. Particularly in a democracy, where the von Metternichs must consult the public as well as the emperor, strategic deception can confuse the public as much as it confuses the enemy. Moreover, in coalition warfare, the inability to clearly state war goals because coalition partners don't share them might mean that the coalition is the problem, not the solution. Indeed, in creating illusory justification, the Bush administration might be denying the fundamental reality — that the U.S. goal and those of the allies are incompatible, and that decisions need to be made.

If Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the only rational solution is the one the Israelis used in 1981 — destroy them. To allow officials in Baghdad time during an inspection crisis to possibly complete their fabrication makes no sense. To have allowed the WMD issue to supplant U.S. strategic interests as the justification for war has created a crisis in U.S. strategy. Deception campaigns are designed to protect strategies, not to trap them. Ultimately, the foundation of U.S. grand strategy, coalitions and the need for clarity in military strategy have collided.

The discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will not solve the problem, nor will a coup in Baghdad. In a war that will last for years, maintaining one's conceptual footing is critical. If that footing cannot be maintained — if the requirements of the war and the requirements of strategic clarity are incompatible — there are more serious issues involved than the future of Iraq.


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