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Commentary

Bush’s Early Blunders in the War Are Downplayed by the American Media


     
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Although Arabic television networks may well be overemphasizing the civilian carnage in Iraq, the American media is just as obligingly de-emphasizing it as they underplay the early mistakes of U.S. and British forces. For starters, although their cause is in dispute, the explosions in the two Iraqi markets that killed 17 and 50-plus civilians—so far, two of the highest one-time death tolls of the war—were certainly newsworthy, but received only modest attention. This should alert an informed observer to the possibility that the American media are downplaying other uncomfortable facts in the military campaign.

Although we’ve heard whisperings from official Washington that the civilian leaders at the Pentagon—many of whom have had no prior military experience—may have underestimated the enemy, the extent of that bungling has been glossed over in the press. When invading any country, regardless of its military capabilities on paper, a key question becomes whether the population will support or oppose the invading forces. The Bush administration may have deluded itself about how much the Iraqis might love the U.S. imposition by force of a restricted form of democracy and self-determination. Although hawks would like to pass off the fierce resistance encountered to Saddam’s most loyal thugs or people fighting because those thugs are holding a gun to their heads, evidence trickling in suggests that many Iraqis, including anti-Saddam Shiites, regard U.S. forces as invaders rather than liberators.

Exporting democracy at the point of a gun is like a persistent telemarketer repeatedly calling at dinnertime; even if the product is great, you are in no mood to buy it when your privacy has been involuntarily violated. In the long-term, the will of Iraqis to resist could create the conditions for a guerrilla war long after the major battles are won (à la the second war in Chechnya). In the short-term, the battle for Baghdad could be intense and costly.

With even a remote possibility of a hostile population, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s insistence on sending only 170,000 ground forces to subdue a country the size of California was folly. Of course, an overconfident Bush administration didn’t believe the Iraqis would fight back and had no back-up if they did. This episode is reminiscent of Kosovo, where the Clinton administration had no “Plan B” if bombing didn’t bring Milosevic to heel (it didn’t). In an episode of excessive civilian intrusion into military planning similar to Hitler’s disregard of sound military advice from his generals and the Johnson administration’s micromanagement of the Vietnam War, defense insiders say that Rumsfeld ignored early advice from the military that larger and heavier ground forces would be needed for the invasion. At the very least, he should have had heavier forces on the Iraqi border ready to race in if things went bad (the arrival of most heavy forces is weeks away and cannot help but slow all-important momentum and strengthen the Iraqi will to fight).

What has happened in Basra may be indicative of what will happen in the fight for Baghdad. Small numbers of guerrilla fighters and a fractured Iraqi military unit have held the British at bay for longer than expected. Baghdad is larger, heavily defended by elite forces and Iraq’s most important metropolis. Even with reinforcements, U.S. forces may have trouble taking the capital city. As the experience in Basra shows, urban terrain acts as a tremendous force multiplier for even weak forces.

If the fight for Baghdad is intense, high U.S. or Iraqi civilian casualties could occur and the war could be dragged out—thus eroding U.S. public support for the conflict (Saddam’s strategy for surviving). The overconfidence of the Bush administration also led to the elementary mistake of neglecting to guard vulnerable supply lines. Throughout military history, armies have realized that attacking supply lines in the adversary’s rear has the same effect as taking on heavily armed forces directly, but is safer. After all, a tank that runs out of gas and ammunition is just as ineffective as one that has been destroyed. Thus, U.S. troops have been left short on food and fuel and exposed to attacks from virtually every direction.

In addition, an old political adage seems to have escaped the administration: dealing with a foreign policy crisis can’t get you reelected, but it can get you defeated. LBJ and Carter met their demise because of bungled military operations. And Bush need only look to his father and Winston Churchill to find politicians who were thrown out of office even after winning resounding military victories.

Perhaps the Bush administration can overcome the early blunders to win its preventative war and reelection, but it will be an uphill battle given the high expectations of the administration’s own making. And blunders they are, even if the U.S. media is doing its “patriotic duty” by downplaying them.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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