Operation Iraqi Freedom is less than two weeks old, and already at least one key battle is lost – that of public expectations. The entire Iraqi army did not lay down its arms en masse and a jubilant population has not rushed forward waving flowers, as some leading Bush administration officials had led the public to expect they would.
Worse, it is not only the American public that has been taken aback by developments, but leading military commanders as well. Lt. General William S. Wallace, commander of the American ground forces pushing toward Bagdhad, told reporters, "the enemy we’re fighting is different from the one that we were programmed against," a view echoed off the record by a number other senior commanders. Wallace’s remarks did little to improve the public mood. In the words of Brookings Institute military analyst Michael O’Hanlon, "Last week’s euphoria . . . has now been almost entirely overtaken by gloom."
Americans are discovering what Israelis learned with the outbreak of the first intifada: Overwhelming military superiority does not necessarily translate into an ability to impose one’s will on events. Full deployment of America’s unchallenged air power could bring Saddam Hussein’s regime to a swift end, but only at the expense of other, no less important, goals. Destroying Iraq cannot be reconciled with its liberation. Massive civilian casualties would alienate the Iraqi population, and remove any hope of Iraq evolving into a model of democracy for the larger Arab world.
The failure of the allied campaign to proceed without glitches, however, should have occasioned little surprise. The logistics of moving hundreds of thousands of troops and some of the world’s most technologically sophisticated equipment in unfamiliar territory ensure that mishaps will happen.
None of the supposed surprises have been all that surprising. Saddam Hussein could hardly have been expected to once again line up his tanks as sitting ducks to be picked off by allied bombers, as he did in 1991, or to confront the vastly superior allied forces head-on. His strategy of placing plain clothed forces within military units and among the civilian population to execute those eager to surrender or welcome the allied forces is consistent with his lifelong use of terror to maintain discipline.
Finally, the failure of the Shiite population in the South to rise up against Saddam is a predictable legacy of the first President Bush’s betrayal of the Shiites in 1991. After first encouraging a popular uprising by the Shiite population, the United States then abandoned the Shiites to Saddam’s tender mercies.
In fact, nothing in the military campaign to date raises doubts about the ultimate favorable conclusion of the war. Indeed there have been a number of notable successes. The quick seizure of southern oil fields, before Iraqi troops could set them afire, ensures that the resources needed to rebuild Iraq after the war will be found within the country itself. The Patriot anti-missile batteries have performed almost flawlessly; allied control of Western Iraq has removed Israel from the range of any Scuds Saddam still possesses; and Iraqi forces were unable to blow up crucial bridges over the Euphrates River to slow the allied advance on Bagdhad.
Meanwhile Saddam’s crack Republican Guard units stationed at the southern approach to Bagdhad are being systematically chewed up by allied air power. At current rates, the number of civilian casualties will be no more than an average month’s work for Saddam and his equally sadistic sons, and their demise will be greeted with the same enthusiasm as Dorothy’s throwing of water on the Wicked Witch of the North in the Wizard of Oz.
Nothing, in short, has gone terribly wrong, and much has gone right. Still President Bush grew notably tense and terse at last week’s joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair when challenged as to whether the campaign is behind the predictions of military planners. Bush knows that there is a political reality as well as a military one, and that the former is largely a function of public perceptions.
If Saddam has succeeded in throwing a few unexpected spanners into the works, it is largely because he has had nearly a year to plot a defensive strategy. The breathing space given him by the passage of Security Council Resolution 1441 and the subsequent farce of the U.N. weapons inspections is another example of the danger of raising false expectations in the public.
In an effort to avoid the charge of unilateralism, President Bush allowed himself to be roped into efforts to secure Security Council passage of Resolution 1441, with its regime of weapons inspections. Few, if any, in the administration held out much hope for those inspections given Saddam’s past successes in evading detection of his weapons of mass destruction and the four years he had to hide those weapons after expelling the previous U.N. inspectors.
Yet despite knowing that the inspectors were basically looking for a needle in a haystack, the administration created the public perception that those inspections were consequential by touting passage of Resolution 1441 as a significant achievement. And if they were important, obviously the weapons inspectors had to be given time to do their job.
By avoiding an out and out confrontation with Hans Blix and his inspectors, Saddam was able to buy time and provide his allies on the Security Council with ammunition to tie the hands of America and Britain. In time, he succeeded in convincing the world that he was obligated to do no more than permit U.N. inspectors to conduct a scavenger hunt rather than to actually disarm. The longer the inspections dragged on, the more opposition to military action grew around the world.
In the end, as Lawrence Kaplan pointed out in The New Republic, President Bush was left in "the awkward position of disowning a process to which [he] himself had publicly committed the United States" in order to lead the United States to a war he had always regarded as inevitable.
The risk of creating false expectations is not confined to the expectations of the general public. Similar risks exist in diplomatic relations between nations. Just as the United States pursued passage of Resolution 1441 for tactical reasons – i.e., the mistaken belief that Saddam would not even be able to maintain a pretense of compliance – so has Prime Minister Sharon chosen for tactical reasons to "accept" the Quartet Roadmap, albeit with reservations.
Sharon seeks to win brownie points with the Bush admistration, upon which Israel is increasingly dependent, by providing it with a fig leaf of progress in the "peace progress." We can be reasonably sure that Sharon has no more intention of allowing the Europeans to become the arbiters of Israel’s fate than the Americans had of allowing France to determine its course of action with respect to Iraq.
Other parties, most notably Prime Minister Blair and Secretary State Colin Powell, have made clear, however, that they take the Roadmap quite seriously, and intend to pursue its implementation vigorously after the war in Iraq is concluded. When the pressure on Israel heats up, only Israel’s "acceptance" of the Roadmap will be remembered and its "reservations" ignored.
Prime Minister Sharon would be well advised to remember the lesson of Resolution 1441: Often that which we only pretend to believe comes back to haunt us.