A Pentagon-dubbed ‘decapitation’ mission, a pre-dawn air assault with Saddam Hussein as its reputed target, may have been President George Bush’s best chance to stave off a protracted war, which could spell ultimate defeat even if American troops score strings of tactical victories.
But even if the Iraqi president is killed or captured, could the American people still be facing years of war, in Iraq or elsewhere?
The issue was raised in Israel well before the assault began, prompted by remarks earlier this week by former prime minister Shimon Peres.
“The war in Iraq is just the beginning,” Peres told Israel Channel One Television. “Problems of the first magnitude can be expected therafter, as well: Iran, North Korea, and Libya.
“The problem is, can you simply abandon the world to dictators, to weapons of mass destruction?”
Asked if that meant America might then be facing as many as five or six years of war at this point, Peres replied, “That is very possible. I don’t know how long it will take, but the problem is a global one, and it will not end in Iraq, even if a new regime is instituted – say a regime like Jordan’s, not a democracy, but orderly and responsible rule.”
Taking a narrower view, former army chief, cabinet minister and peace negotiator Amnon Lipkin-Shahak said the American campaign in Iraq could be relatively brief.
“There is a good chance that there will be a collapse of the Iraqi will to fight. Part of this will depend on how the Iraqis perceive the American offensive,” Lipkin-Shahak said hours before the attack began.
“The Iraqis already understand American determination, American psychological warfare will add to that perception of determination, and the moment that the Iraqis understand that the Americans mean to go all the way this time – and not to stop somewhere in the middle as they did the last time [in the 1991 Gulf war], the collapse will be that much faster.” Other Israeli officials have speculated that even if the United States can achieve a relatively swift military triumph in Iraq, the subsequent occupation of a nation the size of California could prove a tar baby of major proportions, and an uncomfortable, perhaps dangerous echo of the Israel’s military experience in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. The killing or capture of the Iraqi leader might help shorten the war’s timespan, but it is overly simplistic to believe that the removal of Saddam Hussein or his sons would spell a swift conclusion, said Haaretz intelligence analyst Yossi Melman. “One must give Iraq’s generals, its leadership, and the [ruling] Ba’ath Party due credit,” Melman observes. “It is not just a regime ruled through tyranny and terror. There is that, to a great degree, but these people are also guided by ideology, that of the Ba’ath, the common cause, the notion of the Iraqi nation.
“Some of them are certainly Iraqi patriots. It’s not that they blindly obey Saddam Hussein just because they fear him. True, he has sewn the seeds of fear and terror in the 30 years he’s ruled there, but there is more than that, and that’s why it will not be so easy.” One particular problem for the campaign against Saddam Hussein is his intensely loyal inner circle, including a core of some 10 top generals, key players in his rule, many of them members of Saddam’s family clan.
Now that the apparent ‘liquidation’ bid has apparently failed, the Americans can be expected “to concentrate on breaking lines of communication, targeting the regime’s command and control centers, in a ‘divide and rule’ strategy, to isolate Saddam Hussein and his central command from the other, more peripheral areas of Iraq – in sum, to push him into losing control of the situation.”
The question of whether the Bush administration will follow an Iraqi campaign with threats of military force against other nations on the White House blacklist may in the end be decided by domestic considerations, rather than the desire to bring about changes in regimes that, in terms of nuclear potential alone, are potentially far more dangerous than that of Saddam.
“If he is still at war when he runs again, even if he is winning that war, I don’t believe he will be re-elected, if only because of the economy,” says Melman. Perhaps the greatest single failure of the American military and intelligence effort occured long before the overnight Tomahawk Cruise missile attack was launched, Melman concludes. “Had U.S. intelligence services succeeded previously in an operation against Saddam Hussein, the war might well have been prevented entirely.”
BRADLEY BURSTON writes for Ha’aretz.