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."

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.

Even assuming Muslim rage doesn't produce a worst-case scenario—say, regime change in Pakistan that puts nuclear arms in the hands of terrorists—there is still plenty to worry about, most notably the next generation of anti-American terrorism quietly incubating in the hearts and minds of adolescent Al Jazeera watchers around the world. Further, anti-American Muslims—already trickling into Iraq from Jordan—could start showing up in larger numbers, including the occasional suicide bomber (who will make American troops even more jittery, leading to more dead Iraqi civilians for Al Jazeera to highlight, and so on). Every week that this war drags on is a week in which bad things can happen, and Rumsfeld's seeming indifference to this fact does not inspire confidence. (According to Marshall's Washington Monthly piece, the zanier neocons may actually welcome growing Muslim hatred of the United States as somehow advancing their grand design—a reductio ad absurdum if there ever was one.)

Of course, the administration may yet proceed with a fairly prompt move on Baghdad—i.e., without waiting for the 4th Infantry Division to arrive in mid-April. But approaching Baghdad with less than overwhelming force will probably mean more civilian casualties. The fewer ground troops we have, the more bombs we use; and the more precarious a soldier's position, the less picky he'll be about whom he shoots. So, the total amount of bad American karma pumped into the Muslim world will still be higher than it would have been if Rumsfeld had listened to his generals and put more troops on the ground to begin with. (For details on how we wound up in this predicament, read Slate's Fred Kaplan on a) how the pre-invasion war games may have been rigged; and b) the "transformational" military doctrine that has enamored some in the Pentagon.)

And now for a shocking admission: I, too, thought the war would be relatively quick. I predicted in this magazine that within two weeks of the war's first shot, loyalty to Saddam would start to crumble—a prediction that has about 48 hours before the life drains out of it. But that was the optimistic note in a fundamentally pessimistic assessment. I was arguing that this war—without U.N. authorization, and without U.N. inspectors having found a smoking gun—was on balance a mistake even if it went quickly, given the long-term blowback. In contrast, Wolfowitz and Perle championed a grand strategic vision that features an intricate series of rosy scenarios. So, the past week's evidence that they're prone to wishful thinking casts doubt on their whole argument.

In retrospect, there were good reasons to doubt that this war would go as smoothly as other American wars of the past 13 years. For example: Unlike them, this is a war in which we both a) are fighting people in their homeland, not just kicking them out of someone else's; and b) have no major, organized indigenous ground force to help us do the dirty work. But, once the geopolitics of the situation had convinced me that any essentially unilateral war would be a mistake, I didn't reflect long and hard on exactly how messy (and thus exactly how bad an idea) such a war would be.

Also, I made the mistake of putting some trust in talking heads—all those can-do TV military analysts, and even people like Wolfowitz and Perle. I had always assumed that the administration's hawks do understand war, even if they don't understand geopolitics. Turns out I was only half right.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Music
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?