Bush's attempt to psych out Iraq.

Bush's attempt to psych out Iraq.

Bush's attempt to psych out Iraq.

Politics and policy.
March 17 2003 11:15 PM

Coalition of the Will

Bush's attempt to psych out Iraq.

In his televised address Monday night, President Bush disclosed no new information or decision. His failure to win U.N. support was old news; his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein had been broadcast around the world for hours. The purpose of Bush's speech was to psych out one audience and psych up another. To Iraqis, Bush counseled: Resistance is futile. To Americans, he preached: Never give up.

Advertisement

As in Afghanistan and Kosovo, morale in Iraq is self-fulfilling. The army that loses self-confidence and the confidence of its people loses the war. The United States has overwhelming numerical and technological advantages, but a bloody, drawn-out victory won't do. Bush needs the war to end quickly and with minimal casualties. He needs a psych-out, not a wipeout.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In his opening remarks, Bush referred to his coalition's "will," "resolve," and "fortitude." He spoke of Iraq's defeat in declarative terms, as though it had already happened. He described what would befall Saddam's henchmen "as our coalition takes away their power." He warned that it was "too late for Saddam" and that "war criminals will be punished." He offered Iraqi soldiers a choice not between permitting the entry of American forces and being attacked, but between permitting the "peaceful entry" of these forces and being "attacked and destroyed." The impossibility of preventing entry or surviving attack was left unspoken.

By dictating the story of Saddam's collapse, Bush sought to dictate the decisions of Saddam's troops and generals. "It is not too late for the Iraqi military to act with honor," said Bush. "Do not fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life."

Then Bush addressed his own citizens. Saddam or his terrorist sympathizers "might try to conduct terrorist operations against the American people," said the president. Should Americans, too, respond with despair and capitulation? Not at all. "Should enemies strike our country, they would be attempting to shift our attention with panic and weaken our morale with fear," said Bush. "In this, they would fail. No act of theirs can alter the course or shake the resolve of this country." They, not we, should be afraid. "If our enemies dare to strike us, they and all who have aided them will face fearful consequences," warned Bush.

It's a bit odd to couple such contrary messages in the same address. There's a risk that Iraqi soldiers, on hearing the second half of Bush's speech, will discount the first. Why should they show less courage than Bush expects of Americans?

But if you doubt the power of psychological warfare, look at what's happening right now in Baghdad and Ankara. Turkish leaders who dragged their heels on U.S. troop deployments are rushing to open their gates. Why? According to the New York Times, Turkish officials believe an "invasion of Iraq now seems inevitable," so the only question left is whether Turkey gets a "say in its aftermath." Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Baghdad residents have "besieged currency exchange dealers … lugging in satchels of worn Iraqi dinars and leaving with small wads of $100 bills."

A dinar is a promise from the Iraqi government. A dollar bill is a promise from the American government. Saddam's people are betting against him. The psych-out has begun.