The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11…. The war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless.

    —George W. Bush, April 30, 2003

There has been much talk in Washington about the "shock and awe" that might result from an air campaign. This is an attempt to induce shock and awe on the ground, as American armor maneuvers near the former power centers of the government and tries to narrow the space where top officials may be hiding.

    —Michael Gordon, The New York Times, April 9, 2003

America and the world owe George W. Bush a debt of thanks. Nothing so avenged the victims of September 11 or so shielded Americans from the recurrence of similar disasters as unleashing the U.S. military on the Iraqi Ba'athist regime, which embodied hate and contempt for America. President Bush's recognition on April 30, 2003, that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" had been the biggest battle yet in the war on terror, and especially that the war would not be endless, augurs an intellectual process that may lead to understanding, and then to pursuing, victory in that larger war. 

In a nutshell: President Bush ended up making war on Iraq more or less correctly only after having courted political and diplomatic disaster. Immediately after winning the battle, he resumed the policies that had forestalled military success. He reassured the terror regime of Syria, rewarded the terror regime of Palestine, did not scrub the remnants of Ba'ath rule in Iraq, and sought to relieve pressure on the Saudi royal family. Most important, any "regime change" abroad remained less certain than the permanence of the post-September 11 changes wrought by security measures in the American regime. Victory or defeat may well depend on George W. Bush's threshold of embarrassment.

In 1991, as in Vietnam, and as in Korea, America specialized in winning the battle and losing the war. Whether military success in Iraq, 2003 would break that pattern would depend on the resolution of intellectual conflicts in Washington.

The Battle of Iraq: The Enemy

No satisfactory account of the battle of Iraq is possible because—even after total military success—we lack solid knowledge of what the enemy was trying to accomplish. We know what the enemy did and did not do, and we know how he did it. But we have nothing but conjectures as to why. 

Now we know that the Iraqi armed forces fought without operational plans, central command and control, never mind a strategy. We know that Saddam's inner circle had decided to abandon the regime well before the battle began. What Saddam had in mind when he so decided or where he and his key people went, U.S. intelligence hasn't a clue.

Between October 2002 and March 2003 Saddam Hussein had the United States in a tightening vise. On one side was Bush's strident commitment to some kind of victory. On the other side was mounting opposition to America around the world. In the middle was the key concession that Secretary of State Colin Powell had squeezed out of Bush on October 2: if Saddam "disarmed," Bush would finish eating his words about "regime change." America would claim victory without shooting, and the regime could stay in power. Let the Americans come into Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction—but in peace, with no shooting, accompanied by the U.N., and with full respect for sovereignty. Even the U.S. draft resolution had promised the latter. Bush would look good in the short run, and Saddam would win in the long. Yet as Bush's March 22 deadline drew closer, Saddam did not make that diplomatic move, or any other. 

Saddam was rightly reputed a master survivor. He knew better than the Americans how little his weapons of mass destruction were the basis of his influence in the world, and how much that influence depended on foiling the Americans again. We now know how little he thought of these WMDs because, weeks or months before the battle, he ordered not just their destruction, but also the chemical de-contamination of the instruments involved in their manufacture. He did this even as he was gathering $1 billion in currency in his central bank so he could loot it as he was abandoning his own regime on his own terms. We know not the terms, or why. 

Saddam's betrayal of his regime covered his escape. Key to both were some 10,000 Fedayeen Saddam, the black-clad criminals that his son Qusay had organized after the 1991 Gulf War in order to terrorize the country back into submission. Saddam deployed them within the Iraqi armed forces and among the population to savage anyone who showed insufficient zeal. He also ordered them to carry out irregular warfare against the Americans. Fear of them froze Iraqis at their posts and prevented their welcoming the Americans. And in fact, the Fedayeen accounted for most of the American casualties by fighting disguised as civilians, or by feigning surrender. All of this exposed the Fedayeen to execution by the Americans as well as by their enraged fellow citizens once the regime fell. These most loyal and ignorant members of the regime had the greatest need of escape. Yet Saddam betrayed them most cruelly of all.

Also left holding the bag were regime mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed manure) such as Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Saddam's token Christian. The opera buffa Minister of Information, Baghdad Bob, played Wizard of Oz by delivering briefings canned far in advance in order to fake the existence of a vanished regime. 

Partial evidence of Saddam's plan was visible to anyone in Baghdad. As the well-advertised date approached for the beginning of the well-advertised American bombing of "leadership targets" and "military targets," the target palaces and ministries were empty, in the care of forlorn security guards, who watched over meaningless bomb sinks. The military moved to well-advertised safe havens—mosques, schools and hospitals. But it, too, was betrayed, left to take the Americans' blows while the leadership moved who knows where. 

The bombs that were scheduled to arrive on March 22, came two days early. Some Iraqis long on the CIA's payroll, told the Agency that Saddam and his sons were spending the night at a particular safe house. CIA told Bush, who on March 20 (Iraq time) directed two F-117s with 2,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs to decapitate the regime. The next day, Saddam spoke on Iraqi TV, probably on tape. Triggering the strikes through Iraqi double agents, followed by the tapes, Saddam had covered his escape. The strikes gave the Americans plausible cause for declaring him dead, while the tapes fed the Iraqis' fear that he was alive. We still do not know. We do know that Iraqi intelligence had penetrated the CIA's latest plot to encourage senior offices to overthrow Saddam. The intelligence battle was the only one Saddam chose to fight. He seems to have won it.

Ordinary Iraqis, from the Republican Guard to housewives, behaved with one objective in mind: personal survival. Hence some fought perfunctorily before changing into civilian clothes and going home, while others hid their feelings. Was American fire more or less dangerous than Fedayeen knives? In short, their behavior swung with the balance of fear.

 The Beginning

 Since September 2002, the bush team had vowed that it meant above all to rid Iraq of WMDs. As late as April 10 the White House spokesman said: "That is what this war is about." But beginning in February, President Bush gradually reintroduced into public discourse the link between Iraq and September 11, as well as the expectation that "regime change" in Iraq would usher in much needed changes in the Middle East. But on March 19, Bush announced the goal of Operation Iraqi Freedom: to export the good life. The shell game of justifications reflected the shifting balance of power in the White House. But it neither mollified enemies nor reassured friends. Once the guns began firing, however, any and all objectives depended on collapsing armed resistance. 

Pre-programmed strikes in and around Baghdad between March 22 and 24, by some 3,400 cruise missiles and aircraft sorties, were supposed to "shock and awe" the Iraqi regime into collapse. Simultaneously, the U.S. military plan called for invasion northward from Kuwait by the U.S. Third Infantry Division, the U.S. First Marine Expeditionary Force, and a brigade of British Royal Fusiliers. The Fourth Infantry Division had been scheduled to invade southward from Turkey, but would be redirected to Kuwait and arrive near the end of the fighting. Other U.S. units, including the 101st Airborne Division and various special forces, were dropped or airlifted onto oilfields, airfields, bridges, and into Northern Iraq, where they organized Kurdish forces. The movement of troops not preceded by artillery barrages or air strikes, what U.S. planners hailed as an innovative "rolling start," was made possible and prudent by the fact that between Baghdad and Basra and Kuwait, there was little to hit. Rapid advance could secure bridges and oil fields intact. Besides, American forces could count on unchallenged, near instantaneous air cover from fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters every step of the way. Not one Iraqi aircraft would challenge the Americans.

As "shock and awe" was getting under way on March 21, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the Iraqi regime was "starting to lose control" because "their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces, and to control their country is slipping away." But the regime had not tried to see, communicate, or control. Shock and awe did not play to its intended top-level Iraqi audience because that audience was long gone. Gradually, U.S. planners realized that they would have to occupy the whole country in order to convince it that the regime had quit.

Meanwhile, some 80,000 U.S. and British ground troops drove some 15,000 vehicles of all kinds some 100 miles into Iraq in the first 36 hours. Regular Iraqi units surrendered on sight, notably the 51st Division. The destruction of two Iraqi armored personnel carriers counted as a major engagement in that drive.

The Middle

When U.S. Marines and British troops reached the southern city of Basra on March 23, they faced the problem that would typify the middle phase of the operation: Although the city contained no Iraqi forces that could give serious resistance, the city would not surrender. Small amounts of fire came out of it. The Fedayeen prevented the city from rising en masseto welcome its liberators. Iraqis, especially southern Shi'ites, had learned bitterly in 1991 not to believe promises of liberation. The Marines moved north, while the British probed inward gingerly lest they take casualties or inflict them on civilians. Basra would not fall until the American successes around Baghdad—the real shock and awe—persuaded the Fedayeen that they had been hung out to dry and had better scatter.

In the meantime, however, the Americans moving north past the cities of Nasiriya and Najaf encountered what the press called heavy, unexpected resistance. Heavy compared to what? On March 23, the heaviest day of fighting, 13 Americans were killed—most after a unit of cooks and mechanics had taken a wrong turn. The next largest group of casualties occurred when some Fedayeen feigned surrender and then fired. This caused the detail of some more helicopters to escort convoys. Marines took Nasiriya to make sure that nothing from it could threaten transit over the Euphrates bridges. But the notion that Iraqi resistance stalled the drive to Baghdad because of a lack of American troops or heavy equipment, is nonsense. 

In fact, beginning on March 25, Mother Nature stalled U.S. forces with a sandstorm. While it lasted, U.S. forces moved up supplies for the destruction of the three Republican Guard divisions that stood in the way to Baghdad.

The End

The Marines advancing from the southeast and the Army from the southwest did not really destroy the Republican Guard around Baghdad. By the time they moved on April 1, four days' work by U.S. aircraft (along with massive defections) had "degraded" three Guard divisions to perhaps a third of their strength. Two American divisions drove through the remnants in four main columns—some 40 miles of combat in a little over three days.

The images from CNN and Fox News of American armored vehicles driving along, blasting enemy positions right and left, or watching them being blasted by Apache helicopters or fighter bombers, told a tale confirmed by the casualty figures. Some 20,000 American combat soldiers had driven through a somewhat greater number of Iraqis—perhaps 50,000 men fighting each other with the deadliest of weapons—at the cost of fewer than 50 Americans killed. The final U.S. combat death toll was 124. By April 5, Americans had taken Baghdad airport and mostly surrounded the city. Meanwhile, columns of former Iraqi soldiers who had surrendered to the few U.S. troops operating in Northern Iraq were walking happily toward Baghdad in civilian clothes. This was not Stalingrad. 

By April 9, the Bush team's decision not simply to crush the enemy and leave, but to export good government, coupled with its failure to decide who would govern, began to haunt the operation. Running the city would require shooting ordinary civilians who defied American rules, and shooting some Iraqi claimants to power who blocked the way for others chosen by Washington. But the State Department and CIA had chosen one set of Iraqis, and the Defense Department another. The Bush team as a whole disdained shooting, counted on rival Iraqi claimants along with their respective U.S. sponsors agreeing on interim authorities, and on a democratic process for sorting things out. Nonsense. Machiavelli's prescription for running conquered territory is to arm your clients while disarming the rest—impossible since Bush had not chosen—or failing that, to crush one and all. Instead, the U.S. armed forces were ordered not to govern, and to arrest anyone who tried. Anarchy, anyone? By mid-May, embarrassment led Bush to order U.S. forces to kill (a little) to restore order. But whose order? As Bush waited for serendipity to work out differences between State/CIA, Defense, and their clients, U.S. forces at who knows whose direction, raided the offices of the most pro-American of local factions. "Well, they won't be pro-American anymore, I guess," mused one of the soldiers who carried out the dumb order. 

Talk of weapons of mass destruction, judged convenient before the battle, was sure to become an embarrassment afterward. Of course Iraq had chemical and biological weapons! Some U.S. Special Forces who had found their hiding places in 2002 had become contaminated and quite sick. But since these substances are almost as easily unmade as they are made, and since the pieces for making them do not have to be kept together, turning their discovery into the test of legitimacy of U.S. policy always amounted to leading with America's political chin.

This was the least of the ways in which diplomatic malpractice undermined military success.

Diplomatic Malpractice

Coercive diplomacy is the ingredient that translates the near magic of military success into victory. It shows foreign governments that it is better for them to adjust themselves to the reality created by our military success, however painful that might be for them, than to suffer our forcing on them whatever consequences of that new reality we choose. In the aftermath of America's military success, the magic agenda of cleansing the Syrian, Palestinian, and Saudi sources of terrorism was not about to happen because the U.S. State Department did not practice coercive diplomacy. It had its own agenda. By presenting to these governments proposals that differed only cosmetically, if at all, from those that State had pursued for years prior, State effectively told them that they need not be concerned with any of the things that America could do to them as a result of its military success. Predictably, these governments took this as further reason for contempt towards America. 

Here are three instances of the contrast between coercive diplomacy aimed at translating military success into victory, and State Department policy.


As a result of america's success in Iraq, Syria's Ba'athist regime, surely among the top three purveyors of terrorism, lived exclusively among rocks and hard places. On every side were Americans or America's allies: American forces at sea to the west, and on land to the east, Turkey to the north, and Israel to the south. Each of these alone could defeat the regime easily. Economically, they could strangle it. Moreover, Turkey could cut off Syria's water, or flood it. Whence could help come? Ba'ath had become a dirty word, even in France. Syria was in the legally indefensible position of being the occupying power in Lebanon. Inside Syria, the regime—consisting of the tiny Alewite minority despised by Muslims—stood on shakier ground than even Saddam's had in Iraq. It would not be easy for U.S. diplomacy to make offers that Syria could refuse.

But Colin Powell managed. In mid-April, as Syria cowered, it let on that it was open to an offer of talks. Powell, instead of answering with a list of non-negotiable demands, announced that he would travel to Damascus. Meanwhile, he persuaded President Bush to say publicly that Syria "got the message" and was cooperating. This took the pressure off. Powell arrived in Syria without any demand regarding the freedom of Lebanon or even the arrest and consignment of thousands of known terrorists—only a list of known Iraqi escapees about whom he asked for Syria's help; a request that Syria close some terrorist headquarters; and praise for their having been "helpful…in our global war against terrorism." Predictably, Syria's Assad reacted with contempt. He gave Powell assurances, among other things, that the offices would be closed. The next day, his newspaper, Al Ba'ath, conditioned all of the assurances on America fulfilling Syria's agenda regarding Israel. Reporters calling the terrorist offices in Damascus found them open for business. Apparently, this fell below George Bush's threshold of embarrassment. 


Palestine and Israel

Not only had Saddam Hussein financed Yasser Arafat's campaign of suicide bombing against Israel; he had provided the crucial example that one could succeed against mighty America. Now America had crushed Saddam's regime. Meanwhile, Arafat had discredited himself and his movement by acts of terrorism and corruption so egregious that even Hillary Clinton had been forced to distance herself from the Palestinian cause. Only George Bush, and he tenuously, was holding Israel back from utterly destroying it. Again, it was difficult to imagine America making the Palestine Authority an offer it could refuse. But again, Powell managed.

The State Department had never abandoned its support of Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Its stock-in-trade had been the "peace process," by which Israel gave Arafat land, autonomy, and money in exchange for promises of peace. Arafat's stock-in-trade had been to pocket concessions and to use terrorism to demand more. State typically responded by prodding Israel to continue giving in, despite terrorist outrages. September 11 made this more difficult, although State argued that crafting peace in Israel—meaning satisfying Arab demands despite Arab terrorism against Israel—was necessary for America's war on terrorism. When that argument lost traction with Bush, State fell back to arguing that if the P.A. got itself new leadership, and if it stopped terrorism, then America should lay on the table a "road map" by which Arab-Israeli peace might be reached. Further, it argued that commitment to the road map would help secure Arab and European consent for the battle of Iraq. Who could object?

It turned out, however, that the Arabs and Europeans were not mollified. In the fine print, the road map turned out to be worse than the peace process, and State's sponsorship of it more transparently fraudulent. Under the road map, State did not require the P.A. to stop acts of terror. Only to try. State convinced Bush that the P.A. had satisfied a requirement for new leadership by appointing Arafat's chief lieutenant, a fabulously corrupt, seasoned terrorist with a nom de guerre, as prime minister with limited autonomy from Arafat himself.

Predictably, no sooner had Powell given his blessing to the arrangement and turned over some $50 million in U.S. taxpayer funds, than the Palestinians started up the old dodge again: suicide bombings followed by official denials, crocodile tears, and demands for more concessions lest more terrorism follow. For Arafat and friends, the battle of Iraq might as well not have happened. And why not? For their purposes, U.S. policy seemed to agree.

Saudi Arabia

It is no exaggeration to say that the problem of international terrorism is an extension of the internal problems of Saudi Arabia's royal family. These are threefold: dependence on the dangerous, radical Wahabi sect, divisions within the family based on different harem lines, and generalized corrupt, moneyed, impotence.

For nearly a half-century, U.S. policy has moved heaven and earth, and overlooked much, to keep the Saudi regime from collapsing. But since September 11, many Americans—though next to none in the State Department—have asked the hard question of whether America would be better off were the Saudi regime allowed to succumb to its congenital ills. Its value had sunk so low that it would be worthwhile to use the leverage of military success in Iraq in order to make upon the Saudi regime demands essential to America's war on terror, regardless of how they might destabilize that regime. But State (and oil interests) easily persuaded Bush to continue betting on Saudi stability.

On May 13, massive bombs exploded in the Saudi capital in compounds inhabited by Westerners working for parts of the Saudi regime, killing eight Americans. Powell arrived in Riyadh that day and repeated U.S. demands that the regime crack down harder on anti-Western activities. Those demands almost certainly neglected the fact that the bombs were principally tools in intra-Saudi disputes that may have marked the beginning of the end of the regime. September 11, the war on terrorism, and fighting in Iraq had inflamed the strife. This may lead to much, soon. In sum, events would likely push against George W. Bush's threshold of embarrassment, forcing consideration of how to apply the leverage of military success to the regimes that spawn terror. 

War and Regime in America

Next time, we will turn to the ways in which the Department of Homeland Security is changing the American regime. This series argues that "homeland security" is defeat itself. Setting conditions for dismantling this boondoggle bureaucracy founded on the premise that you and I are terrorist suspects, and for ending the national circus of friskings and ID checks, is the minimum sign of seriousness about victory.