Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm
When talking stops and shooting starts, all the arguments over UN inspections in Iraq, still the subject of heated debate as I write, will be filed under ancient history, and new questions will take their place: How will the war go? After the fighting, then what? The American war plan for Iraq has gone through three stages over the last nine months, all discussed with unusual candor in public. The current plan calls for an initial two or three days of devastating attacks by powerful and extremely accurate weapons. The targets of these weapons, according to retired Air Force Lieutenant General Tom McInerney, who discussed the strategy with Greta Van Susteren on the Fox News channel January 20, is to destroy “the centers of gravity” of the Iraqi military—the “command and control apparatus” which is difficult to hide. In the first Gulf War, when only 20 percent of the ordnance was precision-guided, the bombing campaign devastated the Iraqi water supply, electricity production, and transportation system. This time, with precision weapons closer to 80 percent of the total, it is the Iraqi military, not the national economic infrastructure, which will be struck in the opening salvo. Ground forces will follow hard on the heels of the initial strikes. “In eight or nine days we’ll have forces on the outskirts of Baghdad,” McInerney told viewers. “We’ll own 75 percent of that country.”
“Shock and Awe” is the Pentagon’s name for the sort of lightning war we intend to fight, but military history reminds us that no plan survives contact with the enemy. If this one succeeds within the “six days, [or] six weeks, I doubt six months” recently predicted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it will probably not be the plan alone that determines success, but just as importantly the military machine carrying it out. That the American military is big, expensive, technically sophisticated, and wary of casualties everybody knows. The question now is whether it can fight the sort of bold, quick, and determined war the planners have drawn up on paper.
Two kinds of answers might be given to this question. The first would be mainly an exhaustive list of numbers and descriptors—perhaps 200,000 American troops in all, armed with state-of-the-art weaponry. Facing them will be a ragtag Iraqi army of about 350,000 men, a lot of obsolete military hardware, and an unknown ability to deliver chemical or biological agents. The UN inspectors have not found any of these weapons since Resolution 1441 was passed in November, but the Bush administration is clearly worried about them—worried enough to threaten Iraqi generals with prosecution as war criminals if they use them, and possibly, according to air war expert William Arkin, even to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
What makes American forces so lethal is spelled out in The New Face of War, a new book by the military and intelligence analyst Bruce Berkowitz. His answer is one word—“information,” by which he means the sort of exact, instantly accessible, easily distributed digital information which goes into computers and can be used to find and attack military targets with awesome precision in near-real time. The military machine that crushed the Iraqis in forty-three days of bombing and four days of ground attack is now smaller, smarter, quicker, newer, and more lethal, while the Iraqi military has wasted away to a third of its size in 1991.The recent Iraqi promise to fight the Americans with suicide bombers is a tacit confession that they have little hope of putting up serious resistance, let alone of winning. The exhaustive list of new gadgets and “capabilities” is the easily described part of what Americans buy with the world’s biggest military budget—some $379 billion next year, as requested in President Bush’s new budget proposals.
Harder to describe is the quality of the American military: What sort of Americans have chosen military careers? How are they trained? Do they have energy and initiative? Are they psychologically ready? Are they well commanded? Do they trust one another? Does the organization believe in the job it has been asked to do—“the mission,” in military parlance? War is the ultimate test, but short of war the best way to take the measure of a military is to watch it, talk to it, travel with it, and live with it.
This was the approach followed by the Washington Post reporter Dana Priest over a four-year period, including one stretch of eighteen months, much of it spent following two “CinCs”—the commanders in chief of the European Command, which ran the American war in Kosovo, and the Central Command, which is preparing to go to war in Iraq. Few books are as lively, informed, and intelligently written as Priest’s account of the American military, and I can think of none which has arrived with better timing. What Priest saw in her time with the soldiers provides the body of The Mission, but its great subject, reflected in its title, is the way American presidents turn increasingly to the military to achieve political ends.
Most books about the American military stress doctrine, gadgets, and numbers. Priest makes the occasional bow in that direction: in a footnote about the air war in Afghanistan, for example, she mentions “air tasking orders,” “kill boxes,” “emerging targets,” and other terms of art for American high-tech war. But what interests her most is the culture of the American military, how it looks at the world, and what policymakers in Washington hope to do with it. That, she found, is increasingly ambitious. The first President Bush, for example, appointed the US military the “single lead agency” in the war on drugs. President Clinton also prepared to use the military for political ends—up to a point. His secretary of state, Madeline Albright, wanted to use US troops in Bosnia but General Colin Powell, then still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put up stiff resistance. “What’s the point,” Albright asked Powell, “of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
“Coercive diplomacy” was what Albright had in mind. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry took the notion a step further; the military, he thought, might be used to “shape” the world, push it in directions America wanted to go. Under Clinton the official National Security Strategy gave the CinCs broad but vague powers which evolved into the current concept of “engagement”—a practice of intimate contact with foreign governments and militaries at so many levels, under so many separate programs, that it becomes difficult to say where aid and training end and US moral responsibility begins. The “peacekeeping” methods taught to the military in Kyrgyzstan in the late 1990s, Priest writes, were really “a euphemism for lethal tactics,” and might be used to crush democratic opposition as well as terrorists.
In the course of her research Priest learned two things—that the CinCs are figures of extraordinary power throughout the territory they command, far more influential than American ambassadors; and that “the mission” of the US military has expanded enormously in the last decade or two. “The US government had grown increasingly dependent on its military to carry out its foreign affairs,” Priest writes:
The shift was incremental, little noticed, de facto…. The military simply filled a vacuum left by an indecisive White House, an atrophied State Department, and a distracted Congress.
When Priest began her travels the ballooning of the mission was simply an interesting fact; if the United States wanted to attempt something abroad—distribute food in Somalia, stop ethnic killing in Kosovo, put drug dealers out of business in Colombia—it asked the military to take on the job. After September 11 this American dependence on its military immediately began to drive the Bush administration’s response to the challenge posed by Islamic terror. Priest makes no attempt to prove which came first—a visceral preference for military solutions or practical resort to the military tool that lay readiest to hand. But the result, she says, is a war on terror that is all war; and a “mission” whose prospects reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the military instrument chosen to carry it out.
Since 1980 the American military has been divided into commands, at the moment ten in all—five functional commands, like transportation or strategic weapons, and five regional commands. Most of The Mission reports on the time Priest spent with units of the European Command in the former Yugoslavia, and with General Anthony Zinni during his three years—from 1998 to 2001—as CinC of the Central Command, which includes Egypt and the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and “the stans” of the former Soviet Union, given to Centcom specifically to acknowledge the importance of the “Islamic threat.” Zinni is currently underemployed as President Bush’s envoy to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, but as CinC his power was equaled only by heads of state. “Short, burly and camel-nosed,” as Priest describes him, Zinni traveled constantly throughout his realm, fifteen times to Saudi Arabia alone, where he learned to admire the culture and even the ruling family.
Priest has a talent for capturing the nuances of character and situation; in one passage she describes a delegation of US senators that Zinni took to see the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz. The prince was uncomfortable with all those strange senators; he called Zinni from the back of the room, made space for him on a satin couch, took the general’s hand in his own, and held it in the affectionate Arab way for the rest of the meeting.
After a couple of years of such attention, Priest tells us, Zinni, a widely read man, concluded that “he had become a modern-day proconsul, descendant of the warrior-statesmen who ruled the Roman Empire’s outlying territory, bringing order and ideals from a legalistic Rome. Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus—they would have understood. His compatriots, he knew, did not.” But although he embodied American power, and was respected accordingly, in one way Zinni was not like the proconsuls who ran the world from Rome. The proconsuls were given extraordinary authority and latitude, while Zinni, on the all-important question of using power for political ends, was kept on a short leash by the Clinton White House, and could do nothing without authority from Washington.
Zinni liked and understood the Arabs he dealt with but sometimes chafed under their caution and restraint. Getting the rulers of the Gulf states to agree on measures for the common defense, he whispered during a meeting, was “like watching paint dry.” Even more frustrating to Zinni, Priest writes, was Washington’s refusal to see what was behind the “rising anti-Americanism” of what he called “the Arab street.” Priest must have discussed this with him often. “Much of this,” she writes,
[Zinni] blamed on Washington’s unwillingness to craft a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He complained time and again that the United States wasn’t doing enough to solve the problem. After all, it had considerable leverage that it had never even threatened to use: an annual aid payment of nearly $3 billion a year to Israel and millions spent on development projects in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.