World Views: Premature start by the US
In seeking to overthrow the regime of Mr Hussein without losing the support of the Iraqi people, the Bush administration needs to minimise civilian casualties. In undertaking what it sees as a “liberation war” in Iraq, the US has accepted a huge political constraint. The US cannot allow its task of building a “new Iraq” undermined by the costs of removing Mr Hussein
By Raja Mohan
A premature and probably a false start to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” exposed some of the political dilemmas of the US military strategy in the second Gulf war, but are unlikely to provide much comfort to the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, whose options are rather limited.
The war was supposed to be inaugurated by a spectacular air campaign spreading “shock and awe” in Iraq and clearing the ground for an early and rapid assault by land forces racing towards Baghdad. Instead, it has begun with a limited volley of Cruise missiles in a “decapitation attack” against the Iraqi leadership.
If the intended target was Mr Saddam Hussein, he certainly survived and presented himself on the state television. The US temptation to jump the gun and go for a “target of opportunity” was rooted in the ambivalence that is central to the US military strategy in this war.
In seeking to overthrow the regime of Mr Hussein without losing the support of the Iraqi people, the Bush administration needs to minimise civilian casualties. In undertaking what it sees as a “liberation war” in Iraq, the US has accepted a huge political constraint. The US cannot allow its task of building a “new Iraq” undermined by the costs of removing Mr Hussein.
If Washington could get Mr Hussein’s head in one shot, regime change could be cheap. In the unusual war America has undertaken, there are no low-cost options. That is the message from the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In being enticed into a decapitation strike, ahead of the full-scale military assault, the US President, George Bush, might have squandered the power of shock and surprise that comes with the launch of a massive aerial bombardment.
The limited attack also revealed the problem with air power, which the US hopes to use with intense concentration on Iraqi leadership targets. Undoubtedly, the precision and accuracy of air-delivered weapons has dramatically improved over the last decade.
But the idea of using air power for delicate political surgery remains a dream. Airpower is a powerful hammer that can achieve an increasing range of military objectives; but a scalpel of an eye surgeon it is not.
America’s objective of regime change in this war mandates the maintenance of a distinction between the leadership and the civilian population in its military operations. Mr Hussein’s strategy is to muddy this. The Iraqi leader knows that the only way he can put the US in the political dock is by pointing to the civilian casualties in this war. Mistakes by the US intelligence in identifying the targets in the next few days will feed into this strategy of Mr Hussein.
While he hopes to gain from the US errors, there appears to be very little that Mr Hussein could do to influence the immediate course of the war. In launching the Scud missiles into vulnerable US forces concentrated in Kuwait and poised for an attack, he was demonstrating the intent to take the battle to the enemy.
With conventional warheads the Iraqi Scuds are hardly effective. If Mr Hussein arms the missiles with chemical or biological weapons (which he is not supposed to have), he might create some impact. In doing so, he would provide a serious justification for the war and unite the currently divided international community.
In an effort to widen and change the nature of the war, the Iraqi leader could lob a few missiles into Israel. But the Jewish state, which has had resisted being drawn into a war with Iraq in 1991, is likely to exercise restraint.
It is Mr Hussein’s dream to see the Arab street rise against regimes that are fully cooperating with the US in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the first Gulf war, there was huge support for Mr Hussein in Palestine, Jordan and elsewhere. This time the Arab street is angry but silent and sullen.
In the end this war is likely to be decided by the Iraqi people themselves. If they rally behind their leader, the war would become one of untenable US occupation. If they see it as an opportunity for liberation, Americans have a huge political triumph awaiting them. In announcing Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mr Bush said there would be no half-measures. But the first salvo turned out to be exactly one of those. As the real air campaign begins shortly, Mr Bush might have to compensate for the less than a convincing start. —The Hindu