Can this Pentagon handle the peace?

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
April 1 2003 12:18 PM

The War and the Peace

The Pentagon's dubious plans.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

You can chart Donald Rumsfeld's waning confidence in the American war plan by his changing description of its authorship.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Last Tuesday, when the plan was starting to draw criticism but could still plausibly be called on-track, Rumsfeld said, "We've all been deeply involved, and the plan has been a plan that's been approved by all the commanders, and by—and needless to say—General Myers and General Pace and Don Rumsfeld and the president of the United States. And it is a good plan." Three days later, with the march toward Baghdad clearly stalled and the Pentagon's strategy coming under withering fire, Rumsfeld put it this way: "The war plan is Tom Franks' war plan. It was carefully prepared over many months."

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But there will be time enough after the war to sort out the blame and/or credit for it (and to decide which administration officials most shamelessly deserted their comrades in the heat of battle). Meanwhile, a bigger question: What does the administration's general underestimation of the war's difficulty—which went well beyond Rumsfeld—say about the postwar situation? Does a surprisingly hard war mean a surprisingly hard peace?

First, the unexpectedly fierce Iraqi resistance doesn't necessarily mean American troops won't eventually be welcomed by cheering Iraqis. The notable shortage of grass-roots bonhomie in Iraq to date probably has more to do with fear of Saddam Hussein than affection for him, as hawks have pointed out. Until the fear is gone, we won't know exactly what lies beneath it.

On the other hand, as the war drags on, any stifled sympathy for the American invasion will tend to evaporate. As more civilians die and more Iraqis see their "resistance" hailed across the Arab world as a watershed in the struggle against Western imperialism, the traditionally despised Saddam could gain appreciable support among his people. So, the Pentagon's failure to send enough troops to take Baghdad fairly quickly could complicate the postwar occupation, to say nothing of the war itself. The Bush administration's prewar expectation of broad Iraqi support for the invasion may turn out to be a self-defeating prophecy.

There's a deeper sense in which the early difficulty of the war bodes ill for the ensuing peace—by casting massive doubt on the credibility of some architects of that peace. It seems clearer and clearer that a key driving force behind this war is a neoconservative plan to transform the entire Middle East—a reverse domino theory in which regime change in Iraq triggers regime change, and ultimately democratization, across the region. As Joshua Marshall recently noted in the Washington Monthly, this plan is mega-ambitious and very risky. Its success depends on lots of variables falling the right way. We can only hope that the people who hatched this idea and sold it to President Bush have due respect for contingency and aren't prone to wishful thinking.

Yet some of the plan's most influential advocates—Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle—are among those who most consistently understated the difficulty of war. Perle was egregious: "Support for Saddam, including within his military organization, will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder." Given the failure of this first step in Perle's master plan to unfold as guaranteed, I'm not feeling too good about the subsequent steps—the part where Iraq's authoritarian neighbors yield to benign democracy through some magical process that has never been officially spelled out. (Nicholas Lemann got Pentagon aides to go on the record with some of the details in an important and scary New Yorker piece last month. And speaking of scary: it's possible, as some have long argued, that all this democracy talk is just a facade for a strategy eerily reminiscent of old-fashioned imperialism.)

Administration officials have hailed the creative brutality of Iraq's wartime strategy—civilians shields, etc.—as validating their prewar depiction of Saddam. To anyone familiar with his past, Rumsfeld said on Friday, Saddam's tactics "ought not to be a surprise." Well, then why was the administration surprised?

Rumsfeld insists that he, for one, wasn't. He says that all along he's had plenty of troops in the pipeline, and they'll be in Iraq within weeks. But if that's true—if Pentagon officials knew that stiff resistance was a real possibility, yet didn't insist on reinforcements being immediately available—then there's even more cause for concern about their grasp of geopolitical reality.

It isn't just that, as noted above, the Iraqi people will grow more hostile to the United States as the war lingers on—and American soldiers kill more civilians and Saddam has more time to kill his own civilians and blame it on Americans (a tactic that, remember, doesn't surprise Don Rumsfeld!). It's that Muslims all over the world are watching the same show, and they are not amused.