There’s an Iraq war going on and a Washington war. Both have been hot and ugly. But what counts is the Iraq war, and if that goes well for U.S. forces — as seems to be happening — the one here at home will quiet. [IMGCAP(1)]
Of course, it’s too early to tell for sure how either will end. The decisive battle for Baghdad has just begun. But there’s every reason to believe that days of pounding from the air have greatly reduced the capacity of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard divisions to defend the city.
There’s a danger that, facing defeat, the Republican Guard might employ chemical weapons. That would affirm the Bush administration’s charge that Hussein possesses banned weapons of mass destruction, but at a possible high cost to U.S. troops.
Beyond that comes potentially grisly urban warfare in Baghdad. Iraqi officials hope to lure American forces into a protracted bloody guerrilla conflict which will inflame the Washington war and tap American resolve.
The Iraqis can only be encouraged in this belief by the eruption of naysaying and second-guessing that followed the failure of coalition forces to win the Iraq war in a week or less.
Retired generals on television, military correspondents, and columnists for various newspapers and magazines, some quoting subordinate officials in the Pentagon and commanders in the field, mercilessly attacked the basic U.S. war plan.
Several couldn’t resist drawing analogies to America’s only lost war, leading Slate magazine’s cartoonist, Daryl Nagle, to depict Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a father driving a car with his wife and several children yelling “Is it Vietnam yet? Is it Vietnam yet?”
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, in effect shouted back: “Shut up and let Daddy drive!”
He declared that criticism of the war plan was “absolutely wrong” and “harmful to our troops that are out there fighting very bravely, very courageously.”
He added that the U.S. war plan — a ground-first, air-second invasion — had achieved tactical surprise, ensured that Hussein couldn’t torch his country’s oil fields, led U.S. forces swiftly to the gates of Baghdad and captured territory from which Iraq might have fired missiles at Israel.
Among the critics, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey defended not only his right to comment, but also the burden of his criticism — that Rumsfeld had launched the ground attack on Iraq with too few troops and tanks.
On the other hand, he told me, “I think we’re doing pretty well. We’re going to win this war. It’s not going to be a seven-year war.”
To some extent, the Washington war is an extension of one conducted in the Pentagon since the beginning of the Bush administration over Rumsfeld’s determination to “transform” the military, lightening the Army and giving greater emphasis — and money — to precision-guided weaponry and special operations.
No diplomat, Rumsfeld’s alleged arrogance and dismissiveness aroused the ire of many generals, especially in the Army, who’ve made no secret of their resentment to retired comrades and trusted journalists.
Rumsfeld’s ideas worked brilliantly in Afghanistan. But his critics were ready to pounce when the much-touted strategy of “shock and awe” — heavy precision bombardment — failed to collapse the Iraqi regime in the first days of the war and ground forces encountered resistance from paramilitaries using guerrilla tactics.
The initial failure of Iraqi civilians to greet allied forces as liberators also led some opponents of the war to say that the paramilitaries were “nationalists” or “patriots,” though the increasingly credible U.S. contention is that they are actually thuggish “death squads” who terrorize the local population.
A true evaluation of Iraqi loyalties should emerge when British forces finally succeed in capturing the majority-Shiite southern city of Basra, scene of a major rebellion against Hussein in 1991 — one encouraged and then abandoned by the United States — that was ruthlessly put down, killing tens of thousands.
But early reports — not on camera yet — indicate that Iraqis have expressed support for U.S. forces in Nasiriyah and Najaf.
All the bad news on the Washington war front last week failed to shake public support for President Bush’s policy. A Gallup poll conducted at the end of March showed support for the war at 70 percent even though 88 percent thought it would last three months or more.
In the meantime, a retired Army major general, Robert Scales, a commentator for Fox News and National Public Radio, contends that urban warfare in Baghdad need not be the bloody massacre that the Iraqi regime evidently hopes for.
A former commandant of the Army War College, he contends that, rather than plunging into the city with tanks and infantry, U.S. forces could form a loose cordon around Baghdad, invite civilians to escape, attack key regime targets from the air and use television and radio to encourage defections and rebellion.
“You can do this fast and costly or slow and less costly,” he told me. “Everyone assumes that urban combat is deadly. It just isn’t true.”
He added that Baghdad “is a lot like west Los Angeles. It’s flat, one-story cinderblock buildings, great fields of fire, no basements to speak of. It’s not East Jerusalem.”
Moreover, there is encouraging evidence that the Iraqi regime is already cracking or losing control. Baghdad announced on Tuesday that Saddam Hussein would make a prime-time address to the nation, but he didn’t show.
Even prior to that, on Monday, The New York Times’ Baghdad correspondent, John Burns, reported on PBS’ “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” that in appearances by Iraq’s ministers of defense and information “there’s a new shrillness, a polemics raised to a higher degree than before.
“My sense is that the Iraqi leadership, behind all the polemics and the angry words and the defiance, has an increasing realistic appreciation of what is actually happening here and that the power of the United States Army and Marine Corps, their Australian and British allies is being brought to bear increasingly on this capital.”
There’s every reason why a similar conviction should develop in this capital, Washington, D.C.