Wars, most wars at least, run not evenly but in fits and starts, settling down into sputtering Sitzkrieg for long intervals, then suddenly shooting out wildly in wholly unpredicted directions. The war in Iraq has fallen into a set pattern for long enough that we should be expecting something new. I can identify three factors there may be more that could lead to some dramatic changes, soon.
- Osama bin Laden’s latest message. Most observers, including the White House, seem to have missed its significance. In it, bin Laden offered us a truce (an offer we should have accepted, if only to attempt to seize the moral high ground). The Koran requires Muslims to offer such a truce before they attack. The fact that bin Laden himself made the offer, after a long silence, suggests al-Qaeda attaches high importance to it.
Why? My guess is because they plan a major new attack in the U.S. soon. I would be surprised if the plan were for something smaller than 9/11, because that could send the message that al-Qaeda’s capabilities had diminished. Could this be "the big one," the suitcase nuke that most counterterrorism experts expect somewhere, sometime? That would certainly justify, perhaps require, a truce offer from Osama himself. Of course, al-Qaeda’s plan may fail, and it may be for an action less powerful than setting off a nuke on American soil. But the fact that Osama made a truce offer should have set off alarm bells in Washington. So far, from what I can see, it hasn’t.
- In Iraq, Shi’ite country is turning nasty. The Brits are finding themselves up against Shi’ite militias around Basra. Moqtada al-Sadr has made it clear he is spoiling for another go at the Americans, saying his militia would respond to any attack on Iran. In Baghdad, the Shi’ites who run things are finding American interference increasingly inconvenient. We are now talking to at least some Sunni insurgents, as we should be, but that means our utility to the Shi’ites as unpaid Hessians is diminishing. Put it all together and it suggests the improbable Yankee-Shi’ite honeymoon may soon end. When it does, our lines of supply and communication through southern Iraq to Kuwait will be up for grabs.
- We are moving toward war with Iran. Our diplomatic efforts on the question of Iranian nuclear research and reprocessing are obviously designed to fail, in order to clear the boards for military action. It will probably come in the form of Israeli air strikes on Iran, which, as the Iranians well know, cannot be carried out without American approval and support.
In Israel, it was Sharon who repeatedly refused the Israeli generals’ requests for air strikes; he is now out of the picture. His replacement, Olmert, is weak. The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections gave Olmert’s main opponent, Likud’s Netanyahu, a big boost. How could Olmert best show the Israeli electorate he is as tough as Netanyahu? Obviously, by hitting Iran before Israel’s elections in late March.
In Washington, the same brilliant crowd who said invading Iraq would be a cakewalk is still in power. While a few prominent neocons have left the limelight, others remain highly influential behind the scenes. For them, the question is not whether to attack Iran (and Syria), but when. Their answer will be the same as Israel’s.
Washington will assume Iran will respond with some air and missile strikes of its own. Those may occur, but Iran has far more effective ways of replying. It can shut down its own oil exports and, with mining and naval action, those of Kuwait and the Gulf States as well. It can ramp up the guerilla wars both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
It could also do something that would come as a total surprise to Washington and cross the Iran-Iraq border with four to six divisions, simply rolling up the American army of occupation in Iraq. Syria might well join in, knowing that it is only a question of time before it is attacked anyway. We have no field army in Iraq at this point; our troops are dispersed fighting insurgents. A couple dozen Scuds on the Green Zone would decapitate our leadership (possibly to our benefit). Yes, our air power would be a problem, but only until the Iranians got in close. Bad weather could provide enough cover for that. So could the Iranian and Syrian air forces, so long as they were willing to expend themselves. Our Air Force can be counted on to fight the air battle first.
As I said, when a war has been stuck in a rut for a long time, thoughtful observers should expect some dramatic change or changes. Any one of these possibilities would deliver that; together, they could give us a whole different situation, one in which our current slow defeat would accelerate sharply.
Beware the ides of March.