The Mess In Potamia
Sprawling Mysterious Consequences
September 29, 2003
Our foray into the Middle East appears pregnant with largish consequences. I wish I knew which consequences.
The attack on Iraq was indeed shocking and awesome. If the United States can now subdue the country, and bend it to chosen ends whatever they may be, America will presumably be the dominant power in the world for decades to come. Syria and Iran will take note and behave prudently. Everyone will understand that the US can enforce its will almost anywhere and impose such political solutions as it thinks wise.
On the other hand, if the US cannot hold on in Iraq, no one will fear it for a long time. Instead of gaining influence in the Moslem world the US will lose any it had. Iran for example will understand that it can whatever it likes. America will shrink from overseas involvement as it did after Vietnam. The occupation will be seen less as the beginning of the new American century than as the end of the last.
Further, the presidency of Mr Bush, and his place in history, are at stake. He knows it, which will either make victory possible or defeat ugly. He has invested too much of both pride and political capital to pull out. Coitus reservatus is no much of an electoral strategy. If he prevails, he will perhaps be seen as a smaller Churchill, a clear-sighted man who by tenacity and unsuspected wisdom transformed the Middle East. If he loses I suspect that he will be remembered as the worst president we have had, the man who single-handedly neutered America in the world.
I don’t know. But one thing is sure. He won’t retreat.
Now, can Mr Bush prevail? I don’t know. I’m not in Iraq. I neither speak nor read Arabic. However: If, as the White House has argued, the Iraqi resistance consists of outside agitators and a few followers of a detested dictator, the US can probably wear them down. If the population of Iraq supports the resistance, or is coming to support it, then the occupation is in all likelihood doomed.
The power of the American military will be largely irrelevant to the outcome.
The military is small, heavily reliant on technology, and designed for attacking point targets and organized military forces. For these purposes, it is good, and in fact has no competitors. It is, however, poorly designed for occupying large countries with armed and hostile populations that choose to adopt guerrilla tactics.
The way to defeat American forces is to avoid giving them clear targets, stretch them thin, steadily inflict enough losses to alienate public opinion in the US, and keep the war dragging on. You don’t defeat the US in the field. It can’t be done. You defeat it in America. When a war loiters about inconclusively (if it does) and the body bags trickle home, eventually the country wearies, the press turns against the war, the president’s numbers fall, politicians of the other party make elections into referenda on the war, and (in this case) Hillary smells blood in the water.
Oddly, the occupying army itself often becomes the ally of the resistance. For example, the guerrillas destroy a truck in a supply convoy in a town. The soldiers return fire wildly, killing several civilians including, if the guerrillas are lucky, a child. The burning truck gives the resistance credibility: they are defeating the invaders. The killing of the civilians arouses hatred and aids recruitment.
Killing GIs eventually forces the occupiers into fortified encampments, making political ends harder to achieve. It also (reasonably enough) causes the GIs to hate the population. The soldiers are very young, in a country whose ways they do not understand and whose language they do not speak. Many of its people want to kill them. This makes troops angry and quick on the trigger. They therefore tend to treat the population roughly, which is exactly what the guerrillas want.
The occupiers often find themselves in circumstances in which there is no right answer. If at a checkpoint they do not search a woman in baggy clothes, it may well turn out that she was carrying a large amount of Semtex. Something blows up. If they do search her, the population will hate them. Body-searching the women of a conservative society doesn’t get you party invitations. Kicking in doors in the night and holding women at gunpoint poses the same difficulty. If you don’t do these things, you don’t catch the resistance. If you do, you recruit for them.
It’s a hard kind of war to win. A while ago, the media reported, GIs accidentally killed nine Iraqi policemen. Other American troops (said the papers) killed civilians when, hearing celebratory shots fired into the air, they opened up on a wedding. If these accounts are correct, they suggest very poor fire discipline. To the US command these were “incidents.” To families of the dead, the killings were reasons to seek revenge. And of course all Iraq knows. The guerrillas could ask for nothing better.
Now, is the resistance growing or diminishing? I don’t know. Having been around both reporters and military PAOs, I know better that to trust either too blithely. Still, it sounds as though the Iraqis are getting organized and getting better. They seem to be gaining in sophistication.
A few weeks back, for example, the media reported that the Iraqis had attacked a convoy and then ambushed the rescue forces. This was a standard Viet Cong tactic. Another is to put two remotely detonated mines close to each other. The first one gets the convoy and, a bit later, the second gets the medical teams. Coming soon to a theater near you.
What now? So far as I can see, the best possible solution now is that the US win, establish some reasonable government, and leave. I’m doing more hoping than expecting, but maybe. (Of course, I run to pessimism. This would be a splendid time to be wrong.) But if—if—things get worse and fighting grows, the odds would seem good for a long war by an increasingly desperate president and a humiliating retreat, leaving a helpless Iraq next to a healthy Iran. It sounds like a recipe for chaos. If you go to Baghdad, rent.
Meanwhile Hillary makes backseat noises: Oh, no, I’ll never, no, not that, keep trying….