Scheduling War

For months, the attention of much the world has been focused on the diplomatic contest at the United Nations over the wording of Security Council resolutions on Iraq and the scope of UN weapons inspections.  This has led many observers to conclude that the pace and timing of the coming showdown with Iraq has largely been determined by the dynamics of diplomatic debate in New York.  But nothing could be further from the truth: from the very beginning, the timing of the war with Iraq has been set by the evolving character of the American war plan.

It is now apparent that the White House gave its initial approval for a war with
Iraq some time ago, well before President Bush uttered his “axis of evil” statement in February 2002.  By the spring of 2002, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), General Tommy R. Franks, was well advanced in early preparations for a war, and was meeting regularly with senior Pentagon officials in Washington to develop the basic plan of attack.  By this point, senior American officials were also meeting with military and government leaders in friendly Middle Eastern countries to secure permission to deploy U.S. troops on their territory in anticipation of an assault on Iraq.

But this is when an internal Pentagon struggle over timing and tactics arose.  Many senior officials in
Washington, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, favored an innovative plan of attack that would require a relatively small invasion force of approximately 50,000-75,000 U.S. combat troops.  This plan, modeled on the war in Afghanistan, would have relied on the heavy use of American airpower combined with the extensive use of U.S. Special Forces and “proxy” armies made up of anti-Hussein Kurds and Shiites.  This plan was particularly attractive to many Administration officials because it could be implemented quickly, by the early fall of 2002, thus reducing the risk that international diplomacy and domestic protest would be able to erect any barriers to a U.S. attack. 

The “Afghanistan Redux” plan was opposed, however, by many senior military officers — uncomfortable from the beginning with the idea of invading
Iraq and occupying Baghdad — who feared than the small American invasion force would be chewed up by Iraqi armored divisions.  They lobbied instead for a more conservative plan, entailing the deployment of about 200,000 American combat troops, backed up by powerful armada of ships and planes.  This plan, sometimes called “Desert Storm Lite,” would have required an additional several months to put into motion, pushing the theoretical starting date for a war into February 2003.

All last summer, senior Administration officials fought over which of these plans (or variations thereof) should be adopted.  On one side in this debate were the Administration “chickenhawks” (so called because they had largely avoided military duty over the course of their careers) like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith (the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy); on the other side were career military officers, led by General Franks of CENTCOM.  According to some reports, Franks was repeatedly sent back to his headquarters in
Florida to redesign the attack plan because his proposals were considered too conservative (i.e., too slow) by the chickenhawks in Washington.      

From what can now be determined, it appears that President Bush finally made a decision on which of these invasion plans to follow in late August or very early in September.  Possibly fearing the political fallout of a battlefield disaster, should a lightly-equipped
U.S. invasion force confront heavily-armed Iraqi forces, Bush selected the more conservative plan favored by Tommy Franks.  At that point, the countdown to war began in earnest as preparations got underway for the deployment of some 200,000 U.S. combat troops to the Middle East.

But no matter how eager the chickenhawks were to go to war, it is not possible to move 200,000 troops and all their equipment to a battlefield 8,000 miles away overnight.  It takes time: six months at a minimum.  So, when President Bush gave the go ahead in late August, the earliest starting time for the initial attack automatically became late February or early March of 2003, some two to three weeks from now.  So, since, early September, everyone in the know in
Washington has been aware that the war will break out sometime around March 1st, give or take a few days. 

It was only after these decisions had been taken that President Bush went to the United Nations in
New York and pleaded for one last effort to disarm Saddam Hussein through vigorous UN action.  Because his forces would not be ready to strike for another six months, Bush evidently concluded that he had nothing to lose by giving the UN more time to act, even though he clearly believed that UN action was pointless.  At the same time, going to New York and asking for UN action allowed him to quiet those domestic critics (including some senior Republicans) who felt that a veneer of international support was necessary to lend a degree of legitimacy to the planned U.S. invasion.

All last fall, it appeared that
U.S. diplomats led by Secretary of State Colin Powell were in agony over the slowness of deliberations at the UN Security Council.  But while there is no doubt that Powell genuinely sought international backing for the attack, he was never quite as anxious about the pace of events as he appeared to be because he knew that the fighting could not begin until February 2003, at the earliest.  It is only now, with the onset of battle but weeks ahead, that Powell is truly concerned about the tempo of diplomatic action  hoping, it appears, to obtain a second UN resolution authorizing the use of force before the troops commence their attack.   

Clearly, it has been the pacing of
U.S. war preparations and not the political environment at the United Nations that has shaped Administration strategy over the past few months.  Until now, the White House has been able to conceal this underlying reality because so many eyes were focused on developments in New York.  Once the fighting begins, however, the outright cynicism and deceitfulness of the U.S. strategy will quickly become apparent, further turning world opinion against the United States.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at
Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and the author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Owl Books / Henry Holt).

[This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture.]

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