When it comes to foolish actions by nation-states and nascent empires, I’m probably more fatalistic than average. The prudent, cautious rule in such matters is to expect maximum foolishness so you can be modestly grateful on those few occasions when the appalling people who rule us fall short of maximum stupidity.
So the safest bet is to expect that the United States will invade Iraq with a military force, and sooner rather than later. Gen. Tommy Franks and 600 senior staff officers will be in Qatar at the end of the month, ostensibly for a war-games exercise, but don’t be surprised if a permanent command post is established.
Materiel and equipment, the most difficult of military necessities to move close to the field of battle (especially if Saudis and Turks are questionable) are being hustled to Kuwait and points nearby. B1 and B2 bombers have been sighted in Oman. Britain is poised to announce the mobilization of thousands of troops and reserves.
All in all, the conventional newsies suggest that if a relatively light invasion force 130,000 or fewer is deemed sufficient, it could be good to go by early or mid-December. It might be January before a substantially larger force, say in the 250,000-plus neighborhood, would be ready to attack, although serious bombing could begin before all the necessary ground troops were in place.
A CHANCE FOR PEACE?
Still, the passage of a somewhat modified anti-Saddam resolution by the UN Security Council last Friday might slow down the invasion timetable by just a bit and that might be long enough for second thoughts to develop. If Saddam Hussein breaks character and not only cooperates with the UN weapons inspectors but convinces them he has destroyed all or most of his "weapons of mass destruction" capabilities, there might not even be an invasion.
I have heard a few observers suggest the rather cynical possibility that the Bush administration played the Iraq card nicely focusing on reasons to dislike Saddam, al Qaida and the like without being so specific as to raise doubts or threaten support during the recent midterm election. In this scenario, Bush got what he wanted and more than most thought was possible from the Iraq card not only a substantial increase in the House but enough Republican victories to gain control of the Senate and an actual war isn’t really necessary.
Perhaps a credible UN inspection program and a few bursts of tough talk combined with ominous troop and materiel movements will satisfy a desire to take out Saddam that is considerably more pronounced among certain policy wonks than among the general public. Maybe the administration can get credit for eliminating or neutralizing a threat from weapons of mass destruction that was more theoretical than real to begin with, without producing too many body bags.
From a strict hold-and-expand partisan power in Washington perspective, that might just be ideal for Republicans who are still in the preliminary stages of understanding just how thorough their electoral triumph last week was. It would eliminate the possibility, always present in even the best-planned military encounters, that something could go drastically, massively, tragically wrong. It would obviate the necessity, acknowledged by hawks and doves alike, of essentially occupying Iraq for at least a few years after a putative victory.
It might even free up some resources for actions against some al Qaida remnants that might actually earn the administration more credit among 2004 voters than a war even a successful war followed by a relatively welcome occupation in the first few months on Iraq. It could be sold fairly readily as a shrewd combination of restraint, toughness and determination.
TIMING THE FACTORS
It is just possible, then, to imagine that the entire flap over Saddam and his vaunted weapons of mass destruction have been more distraction than the steady build-up to an actual shooting war, cleverly planned by the Bushies to gain maximum electoral advantage from the possibility without the actuality of war. This possibility is reinforced by certain matters of timing.
It took quite a while from September 12 to November 8 to get the United Nations actually to pass a resolution. While this period did see some pre-mobilization activities in the moving of supplies to forward bases in the Middle East, it also delays the beginning of outright hostilities. The inspection regime likely to emerge from the resolution that was passed will take a while to create a suitable casus belli in the outright defiance of Saddam’s regime if things go according to the current timetable.
The upshot of all this is that it might be March or so before an actual war begins. That’s the beginning of the hot season in Iraq, which is not the best time for fighting wars with a modicum of decency. For just one example, if there is a serious possibility that a trapped-like-a-rat Saddam might unleash chemical or biological weapons on U.S. troops, those troops will have to wear effective, but heavy and relatively clumsy outfits to protect them. This will decrease mobility and increase discomfort.
If the keepers of the empire really want to fight, it would be better to start in December, or January at the latest.
Alas, this is all likely to be something of a pacifist dream. There are still plenty of signs that the administration means to have its little war and have it fairly quickly. Administration officials are already talking about a "zero tolerance" policy (an especially pernicious concept in a society that aspires to be civilized, smuggled into common parlance by the failed drug war) toward Iraqi questions or delays regarding the UN resolution. Fail to meet a deadline by a minute or two, these spokesmen imply, and Saddam Hussein will be toast.
Although the news stories express confidence that "the rubber-stamp parliament is eventually expected to recommend acceptance," the first day of deliberation by the Iraqi parliament featured suitable defiance, suggesting that the Iraqi leadership is playing its assigned role in its eventual destruction. Saadoum Hammadi, billed as the parliament speaker, described the resolution as "provocative, deceitful and a preamble for war. The head of the foreign relations committee "advises the rejection of Security Council Resolution 1441 and to not agree to it."
There are numerous tripwires in the inspection process that could lead to a fairly swift invasion. If Iraq, pleading sovereignty, refuses to let inspectors have unrestricted and immediate access to some site, like a "presidential palace," that looks even remotely suspicious, that could be viewed as a reason for an invasion.
So it’s probably judicious to expect that war with Iraq will happen. It is possible that questions and doubts from other countries and from a few domestic critics with influence actually caused those in the administration influenced by the most aggressive of the war hawks to delay and go through the motions of consulting with the UN. It is remotely possible that further questions and doubts or an inspection regime that can be spun as successful will hold off an invasion indefinitely. Those of us who continue to doubt the wisdom of invading Iraq should certainly continue to make our criticisms as loudly and as publicly as we are able.
But it might not be wise to bet that this war won’t happen.
REGIME CHANGE IN ISRAEL?
I have just a few preliminary thoughts about the possibility of political change in Israel following the announcement of relatively early elections.
In countries with parliamentary systems, the leader seldom calls a "snap" election unless he or she believes it will help the party in power. Leaders can miscalculate, of course, and circumstances can change. But the smart money would bet that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dissolved the Israeli Knesset and called for early elections tentatively in February because he believes his own Likud Party will reap political benefits.
That wasn’t the only factor, of course. Politics in any relatively democratic country are usually more messy than straightforward. Sharon seemed to be and probably was reluctant to call early elections. He was pushed into it by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took the position of foreign minister.
Why would Netanyahu want early elections? He argued that since the Knesset had been elected three years ago before the current "intifada" began and before the one-time abandoned experiment of electing a prime minister separately from the parliamentary elections the Likud was underrepresented and Labor overrepresented in terms of current public opinion.
So why would Sharon be reluctant? In some ways, Leon Hadar, former United Nations correspondent for the Jerusalem Post told me, Sharon prefers a "unity" government with Labor ministers in the cabinet to a government with an outright Likud majority. It makes him appear more statesmanlike and less partisan.
That leads to the reason former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and other Labor ministers resigned and precipitated the crisis. Newspapers have noted that Ben-Eliezer had been trailing in the contest to be Labor’s party leader; his numbers rose after he resigned. Mr. Hadar also noted that by staying within the "unity" government the Labor Party faced the possibility of losing its identity and independence. So the very existence of Labor as a viable political force in Israel might have been seen to be at stake.
Unfortunately, all this domestic politicking is unlikely to change the strategic situation. Unless a political earthquake occurs, the next Israeli government is likely to face a Palestinian Authority in no mood to hold serious peace talks, at least for some years. I would be amazed if the incoming Israeli government is ready for serious peace talks. The election might influence how aggressively Israel prosecutes the conflict, but the conflict will not go away.