Don't blame our troubles in Iraq on the Gulf War.

Watching the war.
March 27 2003 4:04 PM

Shia Folly

12:45 p.m.: The Gulf War second-guessers are back. Shiites in southern Iraq haven't welcomed U.S. or British troops as advertised, and the second-guessers think they know why. Shiites are "still aggrieved over then-President George H. W. Bush's encouragement of an uprising in 1991 and his subsequent refusal to support it," says the Washington Post. Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal claims we could have avoided the current mess by aiding the Shiites back then. London Independent columnist Donald MacIntyre argues that the Shiites are right to lie low, "given the US abandonment in 1991 of the uprising [Americans] had called for." Gerard Baker of the Financial Times asks, "How many of the Shias … watched as relatives and friends were taken off to be executed once their last US incited uprising had been quelled. And how many blame it on American perfidy?"

For those of you who don't play competitive Scrabble, perfidy means treachery. The charge is that the Shiites shouldn't trust us because we broke our promise. That's exactly wrong. The promise we made in the Gulf War was to stay out of Iraq, and we kept it. That's why people should trust us now when we promise to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

U.N. Security Council Resolution 660, adopted on Aug. 2, 1990, defined the objective toward which the Security Council subsequently authorized military action in the gulf. It demanded that Iraqi forces withdraw "to the positions in which they were located on 1 August 1990." No resolution prior to or during the war authorized the U.S.-led coalition to invade Iraq.

In March 1991, a few days after Saddam's troops fled Kuwait, U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was asked whether the coalition would go into Iraq to "stabilize" it. Cheney acknowledged the unrest in southern Iraq but warned,

We are reluctant as a government and as a coalition to get into the business of internal Iraqi politics. We could have set, as an objective of the coalition, the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government. We did not do that. … It would be very difficult for us to hold the coalition together for any particular course of action dealing with internal Iraqi politics, and I don't think, at this point, that our writ extends ... to trying to move inside Iraq and deal with their internal problems.

This wasn't just prudent, Cheney argued; it was a matter of trust. The coalition's mandate had been established months earlier in Resolution 660 and in discussions with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia about hosting the coalition's troops. As Cheney described it,

When the President offered to send forces, King Fahd agreed, and he did so on the basis that he knew he could trust the United States of America; that we would come, we would keep our word, we would bring enough force to be able to roll back Saddam Hussein's aggression, and that when we were no longer needed or no longer wanted, we would leave. ... It was that element, I think, of trust that played very prominently in the willingness of so many nations to tie their own circumstances and policies to those of the United States.

In view of that understanding, Bush had no business promising to send troops into Iraq to assist a Shiite uprising. And in fact, he didn't. Three weeks into the war, Bush observed, "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, and then comply with the United Nations resolutions." That was a fact and a suggestion, no less true or wise than an equivalent remark about the Cuban or Serbian people. But it wasn't a promise. We couldn't promise the Shiites we would enter Iraq, since we had already promised our coalition partners we wouldn't.

We made a deal. The deal was to limit the mission. Without that deal, we wouldn't have gotten U.N. support or possibly even an adjacent staging ground. You can't praise Bush in one breath for assembling that coalition and fault him in the next for not "going to Baghdad." You can't accuse the United States of treachery for staying out of the 1991 uprisings. And you can't say we'd have more credibility now if we'd gone in then.

Credibility doesn't come from doing what seems, on second thought, a nobler thing. It comes from doing what you said you'd do. Last time, we said we'd stop at the Iraqi border, and we did. This time, we said we'd finish off Saddam, and we will. Believe it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

3:30 p.m.: Six days into the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell briefed the media on the war's progress. Pointing to a chart, Powell boasted that the United States-led coalition had "killed 19 [Iraqi aircraft] in aerial combat, another 22 confirmed kills on the ground … These numbers will rise over time as we continue the campaign to go after shelters, go after bunkers, and essentially rip up the air force." As for the Iraqi army in Kuwait, Powell calmly predicted, "First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it."

Tuesday, six days into military operations in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers gave reporters a very different briefing. "The resistance that's being encountered … has not affected coalition progress," said Rumsfeld. "Iraqi forces are capitulating by the hundreds. The total now … is something in excess of 3,500 Iraqi prisoners of war, and thousands more that have been part of units that have simply disbanded. … Coalition forces are closing in on Baghdad and will not stop until that regime has been driven from power."

Notice the difference? Cheney and Powell used violent language and tallied "kills." Rumsfeld and Myers focus on progress toward Baghdad and tally desertions. Why the change? Because in 1991 we and the Iraqis were waging the same war: They were trying to destroy us, and we were trying to destroy them. Now we're waging two different wars: Saddam Hussein wants a war of destruction while we want a war of decapitation that leaves Iraq intact. The current "war" is really a struggle between those two wars. If we fight a war of destruction—even if we "win" it—we lose.

Remember this as you're reading the latest news or watching the latest video from Iraq. Many developments that look like gains are really losses, and many that look like losses are really gains. When U.S. or British troops go into Basra, Umm Qasr, or Nasiriyah to finish off Fedayeen fighters, that's a loss, not a gain. Every shot we fire in a city, and every bomb we drop, increases the probability of civilian casualties, which in turn raise the level of civilian anger against us and make it harder to separate Saddam from his people. Every day we spend hunting snipers in outlying cities, even if we kill them all, is a day in which we're stalled on the way to Baghdad while U.S.-friendly regimes in the Muslim world grow more unstable.

Conversely, when you see tanks and armored vehicles rolling through the desert as though on a training exercise, that's good. It may look boring or useless, but war isn't entertainment. Notice that Rumsfeld doesn't say Iraqi resistance has been crushed. He said it "has not affected coalition progress." The point is to get to Baghdad and topple the regime with as little bombardment as possible. Every death of a coalition soldier at the rear of a convoy is tragic, but the most important thing is that those deaths are happening at the rear, not the front. The killers aren't standing in the way of Saddam's decapitation.

War brings out the worst in all of us. We dehumanize our adversaries and begin to speak angrily or casually about killing them. "The deaths of Americans gives us more incentive to fight," a Marine corporal  told the Associated Press Tuesday. "Freeing Iraq is all fine and dandy ... but this gives us a personal motivation to fight." That attitude has always been bad for the soul. Now it's bad for the war, too.

12:45 p.m.: In the wee hours of Monday morning, Iraqi fighters shot down a U.S. helicopter near Baghdad and forced 30 more to retreat. A U.S. commander called the attack "asymmetrical warfare. … You have 10 guys lying on top of a building firing [rocket-propelled grenades] and small arms." If the U.S. were to bomb the building, the commander explained, civilians would die. So, the Iraqis blasted away, knowing that for moral reasons, the Americans couldn't.

Similar incidents have been reported all over Iraq. British Lt. Col. Ben Curry told reporters that in Umm Qasr, near Kuwait, some Iraqis fought in civilian clothes, making it hard to distinguish them from noncombatants. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Iraqi leaders "put their communications systems in downtown Baghdad and commingled … civil activities with military activities … in very close proximity to large numbers of innocent men, women and children." According to the Washington Post, "Allied troops poised to seize the key port city of Basra were stalled at the city's perimeter by defenders who stationed heavy weapons in civilian neighborhoods."

The Associated Press added, "In two episodes Sunday near An Nasiriyah, Iraqi forces deceived Americans into believing they were surrendering or otherwise welcoming them. U.S. officials said one Iraqi unit indicated it was giving up, but as the Marines approached, the Iraqis opened fire, killing about 10 Americans." Today, Marines in An Nasiriyah accused enemy soldiers of "pushing women and children into the streets" and "leaping out of the buses and taxis to shoot at them." In Karbala, American pilots said they took fire "from tree-lined suburban streets and backyards."

I don't know whether Saddam Hussein has much to do with al-Qaida. I've said for months that U.S. claims of such a connection are weak. But there's plenty of evidence that Saddam's loyalists are using Iraqi civilians as human shields. And it's time the world recognized that tactic as a cousin of terrorism.

The most recent U.N. treaty on terrorism defines it as an "act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act." That's a good definition of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. But it's also a good definition of what's happening in Iraq. Saddam's soldiers are intentionally putting civilians at risk of death or serious bodily injury for the purpose of compelling the U.S. and British government to stop fighting.

In international law, terrorism and the use of human shields are closely related. Article 51 of Protocol 1 to the Geneva Convention establishes rules for the protection of civilians. Paragraph 2 of that article addresses terrorism: "The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited." Paragraph seven of the same article addresses human shields: "The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations."

The killers of Sept. 11 exploited the fact that they were willing to shed the blood of civilians and we weren't. The killers of Basra, An Nasiriyah, and Baghdad are exploiting the same difference. While ruthlessness in attack is worse than ruthlessness in defense, the logic of asymmetry binds them together. I don't know whether Saddam's henchmen should go to The Hague for sponsoring terrorism. But they certainly ought to go there for using human shields.

9 a.m.: Pause for a moment to contemplate the wonderful transformation of warfare that seems to be unfolding before our eyes.

In the last 24 hours, we've all seen pictures of Iraqi soldiers surrendering without firing a shot. We've heard on-air eyewitness accounts of white sheets thrown over Iraqi tanks to signal soldiers' intention not to fight. We've seen no reports of a highway of death or of massive bombing on the scale of the Kosovo war. The humanitarian catastrophe predicted by anti-war politicians and protesters isn't happening.

This morning's Washington Post carries an intriguing report on the underlying military strategy.

According to a senior Bush administration official, surrender negotiations were underway yesterday between U.S. officials and a number of Iraqi unit commanders. "What they're trying to do right now is to punish the regime and give forces a chance to capitulate," this insider said. "It's a selective use of force to see if you can separate the people from the regime." … Another defense official agreed with that description of the war plan, saying that the first day of strikes—which also have targeted some headquarters buildings of the Republican Guard, some of Hussein's most loyal troops—have been intended "to see if we can try to tip things, first."

Maybe this strategy will fail. If it does, we'll have to go back to the usual strategy of killing people until the other side gives up.

But if it succeeds, consider the ways in which it will change the nature of warfare. Today's technology enables us to hit targets more precisely and from greater distances. It allows us to put fewer soldiers in the field, where they're vulnerable to conventional as well as chemical or biological weapons. It gives us the ability to communicate more quickly and widely with the population of a target country, making clear that we're after their dictator, not them. We don't have to roll tanks into their towns to show them our firepower. They know about it from television, radio, or their neighbors. We can win by "tipping," not crushing. We spent centuries developing the ability to kill people. Now we're developing the ability not to. Regime change is no longer a euphemism.

Better yet, this strategy works only against a repressive regime. If the people support the regime, it's much harder to separate the two. The nation's soldiers are more likely to fight, and the people are more likely to help them. Moral error produces military failure, forcing the politicians of the attacking country to worry as much about the former as about the latter.

The theory has one flaw. Just because we have the ability to spare people's lives doesn't mean we have the will. Our military is so powerful that our generals could massacre the Iraqis if they wanted to. That's where restraining institutions are needed.

If you're an anti-war protester or politician, this theory of warfare should change the way you think and act. Your efforts to generate resistance to the war before there is any evidence of killing, much less atrocities, contribute to the political strength of the enemy regime. You encourage uncertainty about the war's outcome, increasing the likelihood that the regime's soldiers will fight and die. You make it more difficult to separate the regime from its people. You frustrate the tipping and bring on the crushing.

If you want to minimize the killing, stop resisting the war. Instead, do what you can to make the war transparent and to hold your government accountable for unnecessary deaths. Help the media and human rights organizations monitor the battlefield. Help them get reports and pictures to the people of your country and the world. Build an incentive system that will strengthen your government's will to spare lives. Its ability will do the rest.

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