happens in the weeks ahead, George W. Bush has lost the war in Iraq.
The only question now is how big a price America will pay, both in terms
of battlefield casualties and political hatred swelling around the world.
That is the view slowly dawning on U.S. military
analysts, who privately are asking whether the cost of ousting Saddam
Hussein has grown so large that victory will constitute a strategic
defeat of historic proportions. At best, even assuming Saddams ouster,
the Bush administration may be looking at an indefinite period of
governing something akin to a California-size Gaza Strip.
The chilling realization is spreading in Washington
that Bushs Iraqi debacle may be the mother of all presidential
miscalculations an extraordinary blend of Bay of Pigs-style wishful
thinking with a Black Hawk Down reliance on special operations to
wipe out enemy leaders as a short-cut to victory. But the magnitude of the
Iraq disaster could be far worse than either the Bay of Pigs fiasco in
Cuba in 1961 or the bloody miscalculations in Somalia in 1993.
In both those cases, the U.S. government showed the
tactical flexibility to extricate itself from military misjudgments
without grave strategic damage.
The CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion left a small army
of Cuban exiles in the lurch when the rosy predictions of popular
uprisings against Fidel Castro failed to materialize. To the nations
advantage, however, President John Kennedy applied what he learned from
the Bay of Pigs that he
shouldnt blindly trust his military advisers to navigate the far
more dangerous Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
The botched Black Hawk Down raid in Mogadishu
cost the lives of 18 U.S. soldiers, but President Bill Clinton then cut
U.S. losses by recognizing the hopelessness of the leadership-decapitation
strategy and withdrawing American troops from Somalia. Similarly,
President Ronald Reagan pulled out U.S. forces from Lebanon in 1983 after
a suicide bomber killed 241 Marines who were part of a force that had
entered Beirut as peace-keepers but found itself drawn into the middle of
a brutal civil war.
The Bush Strategy
Few analysts today, however, believe that George W.
Bush and his senior advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney and
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have the common sense to swallow the
short-term bitter medicine of a cease-fire or a U.S. withdrawal. Rather
than face the political music for admitting to the gross error of ordering
an invasion in defiance of the United Nations and then misjudging the
enemy, these U.S. leaders are expected to push forward no matter how
bloody or ghastly their future course might be.
Without doubt, the Bush administration misjudged the
biggest question of the war: Would the Iraqis fight? Happy visions
of rose petals and cheers have given way to a grim reality of ambushes and
But the Bush pattern of miscalculation continues
unabated. Bush seems to have cut himself off from internal dissent at the
CIA and the Pentagon, where intelligence analysts and field generals
warned against the wishful thinking that is proving lethal on the Iraqi
Secretary Rumsfeld has emerged as the principal bully
in enforcing Bushs dangerous group think, a pattern that dates back to
the war in Afghanistan when senior generals feared disagreeing with
Rumsfeld. In one telling, though little-noticed passage in Bob
Woodwards Bush at War, Bush asks Gen. Tommy Franks for his opinion, only to
have Franks defer to Rumsfeld.
Sir, I think exactly what my secretary thinks,
what hes ever thought, what he will ever think, or whatever he thought
he might think, said Franks, who is now commander of U.S. forces
fighting in Iraq.
So, instead of recognizing their initial errors and
rethinking their war strategy, Bush and his team are pressing forward
confidently into what looks like a dreamscape of their own propaganda. At
least from their public pronouncements, Bush and his aides continue to
insist that their pre-war judgments about the Iraqi civilians wanting U.S.
liberation were correct, with the people kept in check by fear of
Saddam Husseins goons as Fox News likes to report or
death squads as Rumsfeld says.
Once Saddam is killed, this latest reasoning goes,
the Iraqi people will begin celebrating like some Mideast version of the
flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, who were transformed into happy
creatures once the Wicked Witch of the West was dead. However, there is
little empirical evidence to support Bushs deferred rosy scenario of
Saddam as Martyr
It would seem at least as likely that even success in
killing Saddam would not stop Iraqi resistance and indeed could deepen the
hole that Bush is digging.
Remarkably, in the first week and a half of the war,
Bush has managed to make the unsavory Saddam into a cult-like hero across
the Arab world. His death would make him a martyr. Even Arabs who disdain
Saddam and his brutality take pride in the fact that Iraqis are standing
up to the military might of the United States, the worlds preeminent
Among the many historical facts that Bush may not
know is that Arabs have bitter memories of how Israel crushed a coalition
of Arab armies in the Six-Day War in 1967. Already Saddam has held out
against the Americans and British for a longer period than that. Plus, the
bravery of Iraqi fighters some of whom have charged into the teeth of
fearsome American firepower is stirring Arab nationalism.
In a region where Palestinian teenagers have been
strapping bombs to themselves to kill Israelis and now some Iraqis
appear to be adopting similar tactics to kill Americans there is
little reason to believe that eliminating Saddam will somehow make Iraq
submissive to U.S. authority.
While the Bush administration once talked about
administering Iraq for a couple of years after victory, that timetable was
based on the pre-war assumptions that the war would be a cakewalk
and that the Iraqi population would welcome U.S. troops with open arms.
After that easy victory, a U.S. proconsul administration would weed out
Saddam loyalists and build a representative government, apparently
meaning that the U.S. would pick leaders from among Iraqs various
ethnic groups and tribes.
However, now, with civilian casualties rising and a
U.S. victory possibly requiring a blood bath, the timeline for the
post-war reconstruction may need lengthening. Instead of a couple of
years, the process could prove open-ended with fewer Iraqis willing to
collaborate and more Iraqis determined to resist.
A long occupation would be another grim prospect for
American soldiers. Given whats happened in the past 11 days, U.S.
occupation troops and Iraqi collaborators can expect an extended period of
scattered fighting that might well involve assassinations and bombings.
U.S. troops, inexperienced with Iraqi culture and ignorant of the Arabic
language, will be put in the predicament of making split-second decisions
about whether to shoot some 14-year-old boy with a backpack or some
70-year-old woman in a chador.
In retrospect, it should be clear that the only way
for Bushs military strategy to have worked was for the bulk of the
Iraqi army to throw down its weapons in the first few days, at least in
the southern cities. Mass surrenders and easy victories outside Baghdad
might have convinced the Arab street and world opinion that the invasion
had popular support or at least acquiescence inside Iraq.
A quick discovery of Iraqi chemical or biological
weapons also might have buttressed the U.S. and U.K. strategy by showing
that Saddams regime was in defiance of the United Nations. The Security
Council's majority would have looked naïve in thinking that inspections
would work. But neither development materialized.
Once the shock and awe bombing failed to crack
the regime and Iraqis showed they were willing to fight in southern Iraqi
cities such as Umm Qasr, Basra and Nasiriya where Saddams
support was considered weak, Bushs initial war strategy was shown to be
a grave mistake.
The supposedly decisive shock and awe bombing
in the wars opening days amounted to TV pyrotechnics that did little
more than blow up empty government buildings, including Saddams tackily
decorated palaces. The U.S. had so telegraphed the punch that the
buildings had been evacuated.
Bush also rushed the invasion without the full U.S.
force in place. Once Turkey balked at letting the Armys Fourth Division
use Turkish territory to open a northern front, Bush had the option of
delaying the war by a month to transfer the divisions armor and
equipment to Kuwait. That also might have helped the U.S. diplomatic
position by giving the U.N. more time to destroy Iraqi medium-ranged
missiles and hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
But Bush, the self-described gut player who had
pronounced himself tired of the diplomatic games, lurched ahead. Before
his TV speech announcing the start of the war, he pumped his fist in the
air and exclaimed about himself, "Feel good!"
The new watchword was a rolling start, which
meant that the invasion would begin before a full complement of U.S.
forces was in place. So, American generals, who had wanted 500,000 troops
and then settled for a force half that size, were told to launch the war
with only about half of that lower number available.
There were doubters, but they were ignored. Before
the war, one seasoned military analyst told me that he didn't believe the
aerial bombing would be as decisive as the administration thought, and he
worried that the slimmed-down U.S. force would leave only about 20,000
front-line infantry troops to match up against a far bigger Iraqi army.
The Americans also would be fighting in a foreign terrain. The risks, he
said, were enormous, but his cautionary advice was unwelcome inside the
gung-ho White House.
After the war began, these skeptics saw their
warnings borne out. Faced with stiff resistance across Iraq, the U.S.
forces found their supplies lines stretched and under pressure. There were
too few forces to protect the convoys that were bringing not only
armaments north for the siege of Baghdad, but also necessities such as
bottled water for the troops.
Now, as the official optimism continues in
Washington, the military options are getting grimmer by the day in Iraq.
One strategy is for U.S. troops to wait for reinforcements before
attacking Baghdad. Another choice is to begin the offensive against the
Iraqi capital with renewed hope that the Iraqi army will finally crack and
Husseins government will disintegrate.
For the short term, the U.S. military thinks it might
get lucky by slipping special-forces teams into Baghdad with the goal of
killing or capturing the Iraqi leadership. That, of course, is the
Black Hawk Down strategy of 1993, which was built around using raids
by American special forces to kill or capture Somali warlord Mohammed
Farah Aidid and his top lieutenants.
Though this strategy conceivably could work in Iraq,
it carries the same risks that U.S. forces encountered in the streets of
Mogadishu when the Black Hawk Down raid went awry and Americans
rushed reinforcements to save stranded Americans. Such maneuvers would be
even more dangerous in Baghdad.
The other principal option available to Bush a
siege of Baghdad carries its own risks, especially as anger seethes
throughout the Arab world. Arab populations, including large segments of
the educated elites, are demanding a more aggressive anti-U.S. response
from Arab and Islamic leaders. That could take the shape of oil boycotts
or even military intervention.
Rumsfelds warnings to Syria and Iran on Friday to
stay out of the Iraq conflict startled some in Washington, who feared that
either the defense secretary was spouting off again or that he might know
something about the potential for a widening conflict.
Washington also is witnessing a precipitous decline
in U.S. standing with the rest of the world. For instance, in Spain, whose
government is part of Bush's "coalition of the willing," 91
percent of Spaniards oppose the U.S. invasion, according to the latest
The U.S. economy also could be dealt another body
blow. While pro-war Americans are busy pouring French wine into the sewers
and ordering "freedom fries," they don't seem to realize that
trade wars can cut two ways, with many in the world now urging boycotts of
Coca-Cola, McDonald's restaurants and other American goods.
Bushs other vulnerability is domestic, that the
American people might catch on to how thoroughly he has bungled the Iraqi
Over the past several months, despite escalating
rhetoric from his team about the potential dangers posed by Iraq, Bush
could muster only four out of 15 votes on the U.N. Security Council,
causing him to withdraw a resolution to authorize war. It was a diplomatic
defeat of historic proportions, though the embarrassing vote count was
barely reported by a U.S. news media that was excitedly turning its
attention to the impending war.
Since the war began March 19, the cable news channels
have been Bushs most reliable handmaidens as they compete to
demonstrate greater patriotism than the other networks.
While still insisting that its news is fair and
balanced, Fox News has taken to broadcasting stirring sequences of
American and British soldiers being interviewed about the war while a
harmonica soundtrack in the background plays the Battle Hymn of the
Fox also describes the Iraqi governments militia
fighters as Saddams goons and has adopted Bushs preferred
phrasing for suicide bombings as homicide bombings. While
denouncing the Iraqis for showing pictures of U.S. POWs, Fox continues to
show footage of Iraqi POWs being paraded before U.S. cameras.
Foxs super-patriotic tone apparently has helped it
outpace its chief rivals, MSNBC and CNN, in the ratings war.
Though lagging, MSNBC and CNN have not trailed Fox by
much in pitching their own news in the glow of red-white-and-blue
righteousness. Like Fox, MSNBC uses a logo that superimposes the American
flag on scenes of Iraq. CNN has adopted Bushs name for the war --
Operation Iraqi Freedom -- as the subtitle for much of its coverage,
even when the scenes show Iraqis being rounded up and handcuffed.
The major TV networks also have swapped
professionalism for jingoism as their high-priced anchors wallow in the
first person plural of the war, describing what we are going to do
to Saddam. One of the things that we dont want to do is to destroy
the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days were going to own that
country, NBCs Tom Brokaw explained on March 19, the opening night
for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Eleven days later, with heavy fighting still ahead
before the U.S. government can claim to own Iraq, the slanted U.S.
media coverage continues to stunt the debate among the American people and
inside the U.S. government. Bush and his aides are insisting that this
truncated debate be maintained by saying that anything other than military
victory is unthinkable. Only by charging ahead can the United States find
a way out of the darkening tunnel.
The administrations so-called
forward-leaning strategy is an extension of the logic that led to
the war. It started when U.S. forces were first shipped to the Persian
Gulf region. That was necessary, the administration said, to show resolve
and force Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction.
The administration then argued that once the U.S.
troops were in place, there was no realistic choice but to use them.
Otherwise, Saddam would thumb his nose at another Bush and America would
Now, the argument holds, that since the troops have
been committed to battle, any result that leaves Saddam in power would be
a humiliation to Washington and embolden other dictators around the world.
Here the historical analogy is closer to the Vietnam
War during which Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon argued that a
U.S. military withdrawal would have dangerous strategic consequences,
touching off falling of dominoes across Southeast Asia. That logic led to
a deepening U.S. military commitment in Vietnam and the expansion of the
war beyond Vietnams borders. Only after a decade of bloody fighting did
Washington painfully negotiate a withdrawal from the conflict.
In Iraq, Bush is demanding that the American people
follow him into this new big muddy and that having taken the first
steps into the swamp theres now no choice but to press on. As a person
who has never had much interest in history or other cultures, Bush may be
only dimly aware of the worrisome historical precedents surrounding the
trail he has chosen.
As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd observed
wryly, I know our hawks avoided serving in Vietnam, but didnt they,
like, read about it? [NYT, March 30, 2003]
Unwittingly, Bush may be applying all
the wrong lessons from Americas worst military disasters of the
past 40-plus years. Hes mixing risky military tactics with a heavy
reliance on propaganda and a large dose of wishful thinking.
Bush also has guessed wrong on the one crucial
ingredient that would separate meaningful victory from the political
defeat that is now looming. He completely miscalculated the reaction of
the Iraqi people to an invasion.
More and more, Bush appears to be heading toward that
ultimate lesson of U.S. military futility. Hes committed himself
and the nation to destroying Iraq in order to save it.
While at the Associated Press and Newsweek in
the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the
Iran-Contra Affair. His latest book is Lost History.