Despite the 24/7 triumphalism on the cable news channels, the war isn’t over yet, although it’s difficult to see an outcome other than eventual U.S. and British supremacy, at least for now. The U.S. decision to send convoys of tanks and Bradley vehicles into the heart of Baghdad was a bold stroke, but it didn’t necessarily establish coalition dominance of the city.
The move was made possible because of the speed and power of the vehicles; moving at 30 mph or more they can make difficult targets, especially without precision munitions. But they moved down broad avenues where the convoy could have simply continued around a tank that had become stopped or disabled. If fighting has to be done on narrower streets such vehicles will not have such an advantage and they might even become something of a liability.
Furthermore, the targets they chose to seize or destroy were more symbolic than strategic, and some aspects could lead to blowback later. It is certainly understandable that some American GIs would get a kick out of lolling around one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and even taking a first shower in a month in one of the bathrooms with gold fixtures. But to many Arab eyes it could look like revelry and an in-your-face bullying attitude. Tearing down statues of Saddam (as the cheerleaders in the media wanted more of) might have some psychological warfare value, but it doesn’t disrupt communications or root anybody out of a bunker.
We shall see soon enough, but it seems likely that more fighting over Baghdad is to come, and it might become difficult to tell whether the capital city has actually been effectively captured. One can understand the U.S. military’s desire not to get involved in house-to-house urban warfare or a long-term siege of Baghdad whose effectiveness would eventually depend on depriving civilians of food and water. From the perspective of one who would like to see it over with as little destruction as possible on both sides, one may hope the bold feints by tank columns speed the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But (as U.S. military commanders have to their credit warned) a fair amount of tought fighting could still lie ahead.
There is also still the question of those long supply lines from Kuwait that could could still be vulnerable to attack. I read a dispatch from a Russian newspaper that talked about the U.S. strategy of simply going around cities where Iraqi resistance might be strong. While some have likened it to Douglas MacArthur’s "island-hopping" strategy in World War II that left Japanese garrisons on some islands with nobody to fight, the difference is that the Iraqi troops in southern Iraq are not constrained by deep oceans.
With coalition air superiority they can’t move with impunity, of course, but they can move and harass coalition supply lines guerrilla-style. Whether they will continue to do so if command and control from Baghdad is effectively destroyed or more symbolic bad guys like "Chemical Ali" are killed is an open question, but they have already offered more resistance than the most optimistic planners had expected. The situation in the north is not yet quite resolved. There seems to be little question that the United States and Britain will prevail militarily, but it could yet be more difficult than most observers had expected.
REBUILDING MORE DIFFICULT
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met yesterday in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The meeting and its location were in many ways emblematic of the difficulties and complexities both leaders face. This was apparently something of an emergency meeting, held for the most part at Tony Blair’s behest and designed to bolster his domestic political position.
One of the most vexing ongoing problems facing Great Britain, of course, is precisely Northern Ireland. This is the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that was supposed to bring self-government and a semblance of mutual understanding to Northern Ireland.
But the power-sharing assembly that was the centerpiece of the plan was suspended in October, and while violence has declined distrust over the role of the Irish Republican Army persists. By holding the "summit" in Belfast, with the hint if not quite the promise of a more active American role (although it’s difficult to see just what the United States actually accomplished when former President Clinton would occasionally arouse himself and toddle off to Ireland), Mr. Blair hoped to get the "peace process" off dead center. But it hasn’t been easy and no satisfatory end is yet in sight. And this is five years after a peace agreement following almost 30 years of hot-and-cold civil war or insurrection, following centuries of Irish-British distrust. All this in a developed country with a long tradition of civil society and some experience with democracy.
If peace and democracy are so hard in a part of the world with a tradition of civil society, how much more difficult will it be in Iraq? To be sure, Iraq (or the various political entities that make up the artificial country the British created after World War I) has had something resembling a civil society at various times in its long history. But it has never seen a semblance of democracy and the evidence on whether the people really wants it is not necessarily evident..
Mr. Blair, who faces an electorate considerably more skeptical of this war than most Americans have been, now faces pressure to bring President Bush that "cowboy" American in so many British and European eyes back into the embrace of the "international community." He is said to be arguing for a pre-eminent role for the United Nations in rebuilding Iraq and for the U.S. to make haste to implement the vague "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace both leaders touted a couple of weeks ago. That way he can tell the Brits that joining the war was worth it, since it allowed sensible Britons to guide the powerful but sometimes unruly colonials across the pond.
TO THE VICTORS … DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
George W. Bush, at the head of a genuinely awesome military complex (though the "shock and awe" campaign apparently did neither), can in fact take almost any course he chooses. But he is pulled in several directions. He is said to be willing to let the UN help out in the humanitarian aid department, but to be skeptical, perhaps rightly so, about its political or nation-building abilities. But the evidence is that the United States war and peace planners have not really thought through what comes next and the planning will be done in the context of a U.S. government deeply divided on the issue, although they’ve done their best to paper over the differences in public.
Bush’s apparent inclination (at least as outlined by Asst. Sec. of Defense Paul Wolfowitz) is to put the U.S. military in charge for six months and turn the country over to whichever Iraqi political leaders emerge (or are anointed). That seems to be the preferred Pentagon plan. The Pentagon also seems to want to put the exile Iraqi National Congress and its front man, Ahmad Chalabi, in charge of a provisional Iraqi government rather quickly. But the State Department has never been enamored of Chalabi and the I.N.C., and Bush doesn’t seem to have signed on to that idea just yet.
I talked to Ivan Eland, head of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and he said the decision to put together a civilian administration (headed by a former General, Jay M. Garner) to run Iraq directly is almost breathtaking to him. It’s the move most calculated to stur up resentment in the Arab world and encourage more acts of terrorism against the United States. "In the old days analysts would have called that direct imperial rule," he told me, but polite people in the United States don’t speak of empire. But the decision in a sense might have been forced on the administration by the fact that so far no remotely credible opposition figure has emerged (as was Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, remember him?) to head a post-Daddam regime.
Meantime, of course, influential forces in and out of the administration are doubtless urging Bush to have the U.S. stay a long time and begin planning now for confrontations with Iran, Syria and perhaps eventually Saudi Arabia, as part of a more ambitious plan to remake the Middle East. Others will urge him to declare victory, bless the forms of democracy and get out of day-to-day running things as quickly as possible. Still others will use the occasion to call for a reassessment of the doctrine of preemptive military action, while others will say it is time to give North Korea a whiff of American military prowess.
Whoever tries to transform postwar Iraq must cope with the problem as outlined in a recent piece by Hoover Institution senior fellows Russell Berman, Stephen Haber and Barry Weingast that democratic systems historically have arisen from a culture that emphasizes literacy and individualism, political institutions that involve checks and balances and peaceful acceptance of election results, and economic institutions that support markets. Genuinely free and democratic countries are built from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down.
A BECOMING MODESTY
In these circumstances the kind of becoming modesty that the president commended during the election campaign would be welcome. The U.S. military has won, Mr. Bush could say, and Saddam Hussein’s regime is on the way out. The U.S. cannot and should not dictate the political future for Iraq. We should keep the occupation short, give Iraq back to the Iraqis, and accept the quite real possibility that the result might be less then perfect from our perspective, but democracy is inherently messy.
It might just be that public opinion, even in the United States, may be more ready to hear such arguments than we yet suspect. Sure, the war has been fascinating to watch and the media have in general enjoyed the experience immensely so far. But we have lost some journalists along the way, and it hasn’t been a cakewalk.
Perhaps we can build on the fact that the administration and so many in the media demonized Saddam Hussein so effectively as a uniquely cruel, ambitious and dangerous dictator. Having taken out this uniquely nasty guy, the argument could go, it’s time to pull in our horns and reassess our strategy and our position in the world. Saddam was a special case, but the United States doesn’t have to and shouldn’t go around preemptively invading any country where a nasty dictator rules. (It is even possible that the military will quietly deliver this message to civilian leaders).
It is also possible there will be something of a backlash against the war in weeks and months to come. The London Telegraph ran a story last week by Oliver Poole (reprinted in the Washington Times) that quoted U.S. troops as being "stunned by the number of enemy forces they had killed."
"I hope we don’t experience anything like this again," said a seargeant who gave only one name. "It is like [the 1991 Persian Gulf war]. When I see that many bodies, I just don’t want to be here anymore." Another sergeant said, "You could have sent two men in to kill Saddam Hussein. Why did we have to kill so many people? There were so many deaths today."
The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, says the number of casualties in Baghdad is so high that hospitals have stopped counting the number of epople treated. U.S. Central Command estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 Iraqi fighters were killed on Saturday, and typically the number of wounded is several times the number killed. And not all of those wounded in Baghdad have been or will be military personnel.
Being the cause of such carnage might not cause many twinges or second thoughts in the editorial offices of the Weekly Standard. But the American military personnel who have had to commit the carnage directly might have second thought sooner, and in time many of the American people might join them.