»  National Review Online

May 20th, 2002

  The U.S. Will Not Go to War Against Iraq


Are you starting to get the feeling I'm getting, the feeling expressed in my title? The feeling that there will be no war against Iraq? Not this year, not next year, not ever?

Let me emphasize the word "feeling." As a responsible columnist, I am going to do my best to justify my title with facts. It all starts with a feeling, though — a slow-rising, ever-strengthening feeling that it just ain't going to happen. I spend a couple of hours every morning surfing news sites, reading the papers, gathering material for NR editorials and web columns. I go to functions where I meet people who know stuff. I read, I listen. Occasionally I pick up a revealing fact. Much more often, I just accumulate impressions. Reader, I have accumulated the impression that the U.S. will not go to war against Iraq. But let me do my best to justify that.

First of all, this is no way to make war. By "this" I mean these jut-jawed expressions of determination to act … but not till next year, when all is ready; these fatuous exercises in "coalition-building" or "seeking understanding"; these protestations that the time is not yet ripe; these specious rumors of materiel inventories that need to be built up. (Concerning which, Colonel David Hackworth, who has a considerable reputation in these matters, says, to Larry Henry, that it's all bull: "Got enuff to take Iraq and Iran at the same time." Uh-huh. So all this delay is for … what? To give us time to organize peace between Israel and the Arabs? Oh, that won't take long.)

This is no way to make war. The most elementary fact about war, that you learn in your first week of lectures at staff college, or can pick up for yourself by reading half a dozen decent books of military history, or just by talking to veterans, is that battles are won by speed, audacity and surprise. Gentle reader, in the administration's movement towards engagement with Iraq, do you see speed? Do you see audacity? Do you see surprise? Do you even see any sign that our government is capable of those things? I sure don't.

It is true that one, or even two, though probably not all three, of those key elements can be dispensed with if you possess overwhelming force. That's why unimaginative, plodding generals sometimes win wars; that's why Dwight Eisenhower carried off the D-Day landings (he still had surprise). And we probably do possess overwhelming force, even allowing for the couple of years we have given Saddam Hussein to further disperse his biowar facilities, plant saboteurs in the U.S., acquire a few North Korean missiles and add another 20 feet of reinforced concrete to his underground command bunkers. Which brings me to the next issue: do we actually have the will to use that force? Or, more to the point, shall we have that will in spring of 2003?

I was once in the capital city of a country that was going to war. That was London in 1982, when Margaret Thatcher took her country to war against Argentina. I remember the electric sense of urgency in the air, the fevered preparations: welders working 12-hour shifts to rig helicopter pads on to the decks of requisitioned cruise ships, the lights on all night in the barracks, the seasoned army officer I knew who told me, so grim-faced I believe he really meant it: "I will kill to get a berth on the Task Force." (He didn't get one. Serving officers were clambering over each other, gouging eyes and ripping out hair, to get their names on the Task Force rosters.)

War is a fierce and desperate business, operations thrown together in haste and launched at a hazard, junior officers racing forward to be the first to distinguish themselves, staff officers spotting unexpected strategic opportunities and hurling at them everything that comes to hand. Materiel shortages and supply bottlenecks are chronic, there are never enough engineers, and you improvise somehow. (Improvisation is a core military skill. Waiting for all the ducks to line up is not part of a soldier's job. The ducks aren't ever going to line up. The ducks are trying to kill you.) War is not systems analysis; war is not Mergers and Acquisitions; war is not computer programming. War is noise and smoke, opportunity and frustration, chaos and slaughter.

In the case of aggressive war — which, let's be frank and unapologetic about it, is what this projected war against Iraq would be — there is also what Bernard Montgomery called the "hare and hound" factor: The hare is running for his life, while the hound is merely running for his dinner. Other things being equal, bet on the hare. For the Iraqi regime — not just Saddam, but all his place-men — there would be a great deal at stake in a war, far more than would be at stake for anyone in Washington, DC. That's not a reason not to go to war, if we are truly resolved, but it is a reason to examine our resolution, and ask ourselves whether it has the necessary component of determined stone-cold ruthlessness. In 1991 it didn't, which is why Saddam Hussein is still with us. Are we hound enough to play hare and hound?

Speed … audacity … surprise … resolution … ruthlessness … fevered preparations … volunteers working 12-hour shifts … officers standing on line all night in Pentagon corridors for a chance at a combat posting. That's war. Do I see these things when I look at Washington DC today? No, I don't. Shall I see them a year from now, when our resolve, our anger, our desire for revenge, have had twelve more months to dribble away like sand between our fingers, and every excuse for inaction (never any shortage of those) has been rehearsed on a thousand TV talk shows by everyone with an interest in making the Bush administration look foolish (definitely no shortage of those)? When 9-11 is a fading memory, washed over with layers of frivolity — the latest celebrity murder, the latest political squabble, the latest judicial outrage, the latest stock market spike?

I'm not betting on it. If the mood in Washington today — or even, may the brave lads fighting in Afghanistan forgive me for saying it, the mood in Washington last fall — if that mood were the mood I saw in London in the spring of 1982, we'd be in Baghdad by now. Materiel? We'd have coped somehow. Allies? With 'em or without 'em. Bases? We'd have taken what we needed, and apologized later. But that was not the mood among our leaders even last fall; it is not the mood now; barring some horrid new atrocity against us, which Heaven forbid, it will surely not be the mood next spring. In my glummer moments I wonder if we are even capable of that mood.

Did I mention allies? If our leaders were sufficiently determined, it wouldn't matter a damn; but since (according to me) they are not, let's take a look at the line-up. Latest news:

Tony Blair has privately reassured his Labour Party critics that Britain will not back US military action against Iraq unless it wins the backing of the United Nations Security Council. His assurances, at a private meeting with senior Labour figures, were disclosed as Britain stepped up the pace to secure agreement through the Security Council for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. (London Daily Telegraph.)

"Unless it wins the backing of the United Nations Security Council …" We all know what that means, don't we? So the British have bailed out, as I predicted last October. So that reduces the number of committed allies we have in this fight to … how many? … let's see … hmmm — oh: zero! Personally, this fact would not stop me; but then, I personally don't run the U.S. Department of State.

Which brings us to the Colin Powell problem. Bringing Powell into the cabinet will, I believe, come to be seen as a classic error by George W. Bush — given a whole chapter to itself in future textbooks on how to form a cabinet, or how to get a new administration off the ground. Powell has a huge constituency, far larger and more committed than the President's own. To be sure, a lot of people don't like him. Blacks don't like him because he's not "authentic" enough (which is to say, he shows no sign of hating white people). White liberals don't like him because he escaped from their plantation somehow. White conservatives don't like him because he's squishy on a lot of issues they care about: affirmative action, abortion, the Second Amendment, and so on. All right, all right, I admit it: I don't like him — not since I read his blatherings about "the brothers" in The New Yorker. (Can't I be one of your "brothers," too, Colin? Why not?)

However, if you add up all the blacks, all the committed white liberals and all the committed white conservatives, you only have about one-third of the electorate. The other two-thirds l-u-r-v-e Colin Powell. Even among my own readers, actually, there is a strong love-Powell contingent. The reason is not hard to find. Powell is that great hope-dream of white Americans: the Negro Gentleman. "If only they could all be like him!" sighed John Wayne in reference to Nat Cole. That's how huge numbers of ordinary non-political white Americans feel about Powell.

Which means that Powell can't be fired, and that a Powell resignation would be, as Mao Tse-tung once said in a similar case: "An earthquake of the eighth magnitude." Which means that Powell has an absolute veto on our foreign policy. This is the Colin Powell who has sold out to the Riyadh-Cairo line on the Middle East, the Colin Powell who lined up in the dove camp with Jim Baker and the striped-pants Neville Chamberlain Appreciation Society from Foggy Bottom when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Colin Powell who wrote in his autobiography that Saddam was left standing at the end of the 1991 Gulf War because the desire to avoid further slaughter overwhelmed the desire to get rid of the dictator.

I favor war against Iraq. I believe a successful war against Iraq would trigger major attitude adjustment in the Middle East, to the benefit of us and the promotion of our values. I believe it would greatly enhance this country's security by removing a major supplier of WMD to terrorist gangs. But if our leaders believe that "the desire to avoid further slaughter" trumps the desire to take down our enemy; if they believe that Crown Prince Abdullah or Hosni Mubarak will lift one jewelled pinkie to assist our war aims; if they believe that we need the permission of crooks and despots before we act in our own interests; if they believe that Europe is militarily significant; if they believe that the U.N. Security Council is worth anything more than a thimbleful of rat's piss; if they believe that our fighting men and women cannot carry out their duties without a year and a half of preparation; if they believe all these things, then it would be best if we did not start a war at all. They do: we won't.