Wednesday, April 09, 2003
Well, this is a good day. Saddam is either dead or in the Russian embassy or hiding somewhere in Tikrit, soon to be the largest parking lot in free Iraq. Baghdadis are rejoicing over the fallen statues of their former tyrant. In spite of the individual tragedies of war that anti-war friends and family have assiduously sent me emails about, this was, essentially, a cake-walk. The Turks didn't invade. The Iranians didn't invade. The Iraqis are increasingly demonstrative in their joy at liberation. Allied casualties were much lower than feared, and Iraqi civilian casualties appear to have been astonishingly low (though not, of course, zero).
Of course, the war isn't over yet. Tikrit has not yet been made into a parking lot. There are various cities in the north of the country to be liberated. There will be pockets of terrorist resistance, Iraqi and non-Iraqi, pretty much indefinitely, I expect. And there may yet be some kind of spectacular reaction - unrest in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan; terrorism in the U.S. or U.K., a Franco-Iranian nuclear alliance; who knows. Nonetheless, we're due a moment of rejoicing. And then we'd best get back to work. What are the lessons of this war? What are the big challenges ahead?
There are three big lessons of the war, it seems to me.
First: Everywhere is now America's backyard, and everyone knows it. In retrospect, the war this conflict resembles most closely is not Operation Desert Storm (Gulf War I) but Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama to remove Noreiga. No one much protested that war because it was in America's "Sphere of Influence" - our backyard. (Defending Noriega was also a pretty ludicrous proposition, but that never stopped people from defending Saddam.) Similarly, no one is protesting French intervention in the Ivory Coast (except the Ivoireans). What we have just demonstrated to the world is that everywhere is now our own backyard. With only one significant ally (Britain), without much regional support (we prepared for war without Saudi support, and we executed without Turkish support, and how much do tiny sheikdoms like Kuwait and Qatar really count?), without the blessing of the "international community" we came in, did the job, and did so much more quickly and cleanly than anyone had any right to expect (even if some of the more enthusiastic hawks did indeed lead them to expect that). We have just made the whole world our "Sphere of Influence." The world is going to note that. We'll see what they are going to do about it - and what they can.
Second: there was no Iraqi army. This should not have been a surprise, really, but people keep expecting Arab armies to perform well, and they never do. Ken Pollack's book, Arabs at War, is quite instructive. Arab armies have performed horribly in virtually every war, against every kind of enemy - not only against Israel, the U.S. or a European opponent, but against other less-developed countries and against each other. Iraq barely prevailed over Iran in thoroughly lopsided contests in their war; Lybia was defeated by poorly armed Chadeans; even against other Arab armies, Arab armies perform poorly, as the example of Egypt's Yemen adventure proves. Why this is so is a good question, and certainly many factors are relevant: the poor quality of their conscripts, the politicization of the military, the over-centralization of control and inability of junior officers to improvise on the battlefield, the reliance on technology and theoretical warfighting models without regard to the army's actual capabilities, and the pronounced tendency of officers in the field to lie grossly about battlefield performance to avoid passing negative information and assessments up the command chain - all these are unquestionably important factors in the incredibly poor performance of well-equipped and numerically impressive Arab armies in virtually all conflicts in which they have been engaged. In Iraq, add the additional element that the putative leader of the armed forces himself had virtually no military experience, that Iraq is not a nation and there is no national support for Saddam, and it becomes truly unsurprising that it turns out there was no Iraqi army. The Iraqi army, and particularly the Republican Guard and the fedayeen irregulars, were a purely terroristic force: capable of inflicting harm almost exclusively on the unarmed, whether Iraqi civilians, enemy civilians, or enemy support, and completely incapable of defending civilians or inflicting harm on enemy armies.
Third: the WMDog did not bark. I find this quite significant, the most significant of the three lessons because the most surprising. We knew how strong we were, and we knew how weak they were. But I fully expected Saddam Hussein to use chemical weapons against American troops and/or Israel, to use his terrorist army for the one thing it was good for: terror. I couldn't imagine why he *had* these weapons if not for just such an eventuality. But he didn't use them. Why not? It seems to me there are a finite number of possible answers. One answer - and quite a plausible one - is that chemical weapons are lousy battlefield weapons, something Gregg Easterbrook argued very effectively in a New Republic article some months ago about how nuclear weapons really are the only weapons of mass destruction. Chemical weapons are terror weapons; they are best used against defenseless civilians. They are not terribly useful weapons against an enemy army. So why would Saddam use them? They couldn't defend him, and they would only make his villainy absolutely clear if he did. This does raise the question of why he would bother to stockpile these weapons at all. I think the answer is twofold: first, terror weapons are useful to a regime that lives by terror. They made no meaningful contribution to the Iran-Iraq war, but they did effectively terrorize Kurdish villagers. Second, I suspect that these weapons have an inherent fascination for a sadist like Saddam. Though they are unlikely to be very useful, their very gruesomeness makes them irresistable. But there are other potential reasons why the weapons were not used. Perhaps they were in place but Iraqi troops refused to obey orders, mindful of allied propaganda that any officers who did use chemical arms would be tried as war criminals. Perhaps Saddam was actually surprised by the pace of the allied advance, and so was unprepared to unleash his arsenal; he did, after all, mine the oil fields, but never got a chance to set them ablaze. Or perhaps Saddam was incapacitated by our first-day strike, and never had the chance to give any orders to the field. In any event, the fact that chemical arms were not used has implications for our behavior in future conflicts, and those implications depend on the reason why they were not used. If they were not used because they were useless, the lesson is that we should not be deterred by their presence in the enemy's arsenal. If they were not used because we successfully cut the chain of command, then this strategy becomes a more important part of our warfighting when we approach potential conflicts elsewhere in the world. But we must be careful: North Korea's field officers may not be as incapable as the Iraqis, and may be more willing to act on their own initiative to cause destruction.
The conduct of the war has implications for the future of Iraq. The UN, France and Russia have no basis for claiming a role in the post-war reconstruction and political tutelage of Iraq. The UN should be brought in somehow as a figleaf, and we absolutely need to be cognizant of the interests of other countries in the region, but France should be completely frozen out of any political process. That's the way they apparently want to play the game, and they should see what it feels like to lose, decisively.
By the same token, no Iraqi group is in a position to demand concessions of the occupying forces, because they contributed very little to the liberation of their country. In Afghanistan, we fought a war with a small number of highly-trained troops and the help of an indigenous rebel force. The big upside was our ability to prosecute the war quickly. The downsides were twofold: we failed to achieve some of our objectives because the locals did not share those objectives (e.g. the capture or death of bin Laden), and we are now, in the post-war situation, highly dependent on the good will of those locals, whose parochial interests may not dovetail (and may in fact run counter to) our interests and the interests of Afghanistan. In Iraq, we fought a war with a large number of troops, and had by and large no help from the locals. We certainly could have made more use of the Kurds; we didn't because we didn't want to be dependent on them. We sought help from the Turks, and it's probably a good thing we didn't get it because now we don't owe them much either. We can therefore mediate between Kurdish demands and the needs of a unitary Iraq relatively free of encumbring commitments. By the same token, we neither fought under the banner of an Iraqi government in exile nor did we cut a deal with a Baathist defector. We allowed Poland to make more of a contribution to the coalition than Ahmad Chalabi. As a result, *no Iraqi group can claim, with any plausibility, to have liberated Iraq.* This is significant. A founding myth of post-war France revolves around de Gaul's declaration upon the liberation of Paris that the city was liberated by her own citizens. That was only the case because the Americans and British let his Free French do so as a gesture of goodwill and a sop to French pride. One wonders whether that sop hasn't ultimately proved expensive. No such sop has been given to the peoples of Iraq.
This doesn't mean we should ignore or sideline the Iraqi exiles or other opposition groups. On the contrary: we need to do everything possible to lend legitimacy to whatever government emerges. But we can assess these various groups' cooperativeness with a cold eye, and that's a very good thing. Their legitimacy needs to stem in part from their visible commitment to serve the interests of Iraq, rather than a parochial or personal interest, and that's something we are in a better position to be arbiter of given how the war went than we were in Afghanistan given how that war went.
Some things to think about, pursuant to the lessons above:
* If everywhere on earth is now America's back-yard, how do leverage our position rather than being leveraged by other powers? Other powers will seek to free-ride on our position as Top Dog by taking pot-shots at us from the sidelines while we deal with problems that affect them as much as us. I'm not thinking of France here; France is worse. I'm thinking of countries like Germany and South Korea. How do we turn that dynamic around? I think we do it in two ways. First, we will still need actual allies, not just the fig leaf of international support. Some of these will be dictated by particular situations, but others could be global partners. These need not only be significant second-tier powers like Britain. They could be smaller countries (like Poland) or less-developed countries (like the Philippines). Incremental additions to manpower available, and particularly to technically skilled manpower like special forces or hazmat teams, are going to be very welcome. Second, our ability to "do it alone" should have a real impact on, for example, South Korea's willingness to double-game in their own theater. Perhaps we don't need South Korea as a staging area for war against the North. Perhaps we are not so afraid of escalation of a regional conflict into war with China. If to date, as I have argued, both American belligerence and American appeasement towards North Korea push South Korea away from the U.S. and towards China, perhaps now the dynamic has changed, and the South Koreans will say to themselves: gee, if America is threatened, they will go to war whether we give approval or no. Don't we want to be sure that their war plan takes our interests maximally into account?
* If Saddam's Iraq really had no armed forces, what should the armed forces of post-Saddam Iraq look like? If there are deep cultural reasons why Arab armies perform poorly, is it likely that a post-Saddam Iraqi military will become professional, politically inactive, and effective and providing Iraq with security against its neighbors (many of whom have territorial claims against the country)? In the past, the military has chiefly been used to keep the country together by force (the first Kurdish wars were fought not long after formal independence from Britain). If we don't want them used for that in the future, how will we prevent it? And if we manage to construct a post-Saddam Iraq with a small military, unthreatening to its own people or to the democratic character of the state, who will guarantee the country's security against its neighbors? For a time, of course, we will, but this situation cannot last, for military reasons (we can't afford to keep a huge force there indefinitely) and political ones (if you think the South Koreans resent our troops' presence in their country, you can imagine how the Iraqis will feel in fairly short order). So we need to start thinking about this.
* If WMD was not a factor in this war, should we discount it in the future? The U.S. is proving harder to deter than previously expected. This is, on the whole, a good thing, and will pay what John Derbyshire refers to today as a "victory dividend." But we've also undoubtedly set off a furious search for an effective deterrent on the part of those who wish still to deter us. Iran is surely stepping up efforts to obtain a working nuclear weapon; since we have still not taken military action against a nuclear-armed country, it is still plausible to believe that nuclear weapons would decisively deter us from action. We will probably need to break this taboo in the course of this war, whether in North Korea or Pakistan or Iran or somewhere. We will need to prove that we can take out an enemy's nuclear deterrent - that, in effect, it is no deterrent, but rather a provocation to American attack. That, in turn, would be a powerful deterrent to other nations to acquire nuclear weapons: the fear that, rather than deterring America, they would encourage an American attack. (Other nations might still seek to acquire nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterring conventional attack by nations other than America; Israel and Pakistan are the paradigm cases in this regard. They will be much tougher to handle; short of extending a NATO-like security guarantee, it's not clear how America could rationally persuade countries in their situation to forego nuclear weapons.)
Once again, the war in Iraq is not yet over, and the war in Iraq is not the end of the war begun on 9-11. But we are near the end of the beginning. Much more than the Afghan campaign, Operation Iraqi Freedom lays down a clear marker of progress in the larger war. There may - no doubt there will - be substantial reverses in the months and years ahead. We can be encouraged, nonetheless, that things have gone so well so far.