This Time, It’s a Whole New Fight
The U.N. Security Council seems poised to come to an agreement on weapons inspections in Iraq that the Bush administration is willing to accept.
That should rule out war, yet war is still possible -- even probable -- because Saddam Hussein has previously thrown away opportunities to avoid disaster, and he will probably do so again.
He may, for example, have misinterpreted the prolonged Security Council debate, seeing it as evidence of a lack of determination on the part of the Bush administration, instead of what it was: an obligatory pause before the U.S. elections, during which the French and Russians enjoyed the illusion of Great Power equality by resisting the United States.
War will be avoided only in the unlikely event that Hussein allows inspectors to operate freely.
But one thing is certain: If there is a war, it will not resemble the Gulf War of 1991.
There will be no ponderous accumulation of forces over many months. There is no intention of fighting set-piece battles to reach Baghdad step by step. A large army, with about half a million troops as in 1991, would of course require the use of Saudi entry ports and military bases, which the Saudi rulers keep saying they will not offer and which the U.S. no longer even seeks to use.
Last time, the very purpose of the buildup was to defend Saudi Arabia as well as to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait. This time a war would be fought in the full knowledge that it might undermine the Saudi ruling family, once viewed by President Bush senior as the guarantor of stability but now considered by his son as the financier of Islamist extremism all over the world.
What has changed since 1991 is the envisaged role of air power. Instead of merely preparing the battlefield for an essentially conventional war, it is to be the decisive instrument of victory, not alone but in combination with agile ground forces of two kinds.
One would be conventional, with tanks, armored combat carriers and self-propelled artillery, just as in 1991. But it would be a much smaller force, with two or at most three divisions and a British brigade, about 60,000 combat troops in all. Their mission would be to drive straight up the road from Kuwait to Baghdad, destroying any blocking forces in their path.
No serious analyst takes seriously Hussein’s threat of defending the Iraqi capital street by street and house by house. For one thing, there are now at least 1.5 million Kurds and Turkomans and well over 1 million Shiites in Baghdad, many of whom have lost family members to Hussein’s bloody campaigns of repression. The Sunni Arabs too have suffered under a most brutal regime.
Once U.S. and British forces arrive on the edge of the city, the people of Baghdad are far more likely to turn against their oppressors than to fight the troops who would free them at last. The most likely scenario would be an explosive uprising, with man-hunts for Baath Party activists and secret police and mobs converging on the palaces and headquarters of the regime to besiege Hussein’s beleaguered palace guards, clansmen and inner-core security units.
The second U.S.-British force would be needed to patrol and secure urban areas. For that and to ensure against the unlikely event of serious combat on the edges of Baghdad, as many as 25,000 troops would be airlifted into the desert to the west of the city, ready to converge with the armored columns driving up from the south. Both forces, along with their operational headquarters and land-based air support, would operate from bases that are definitely available and indeed already in use in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and the island of Diego Garcia.
The key, of course, is the advance of air power since 1991. Then, only a fraction of the combat aircraft involved -- fewer than 150 out of 2,000 -- could routinely deliver precision weapons. Today, all are equipped for precision bombardment and should thus be able to destroy seven times as many targets each day and night with a much smaller force of land-based and sea-based fighter-bombers as well as a few B-2 bombers flying from Diego Garcia.
There are many reasons for opposing a war against Hussein. But the notion that it would be reckless and full of military risks is not supported by the evidence.
No war is easy and no war is exempt from uncertainty, but a swift victory is the much more likely outcome, leaving the U.S. and the world with the new problems of a post-Hussein Iraq.