WASHINGTON, DC — As you read this, the United States will most likely be at war with Iraq, or teetering perilously close to hostilities. The only people who seem comfortable with this are President George W. Bush and his inner circle. This past Sunday, for instance, viewers of NBC’s Meet the Press saw a supremely confident Dick Cheney. Of course, the vice-president didn’t get many questions from host Tim Russert about the faltering US economy. The talk was about war — which, if you believe Cheney, will be quick, fairly painless (for our troops, at least) and a boon to the entire Middle East and the world. Asked by Russert if "the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties," Cheney replied: "Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators."
Cheney later added that "I don’t want to convey to the American people the idea that this is a cost-free operation. Nobody can say that. I do think there’s no doubt about the outcome." But the message is clear. Invading Iraq will be a no-fuss, no-doubt operation.
Yet there are numerous uncertainties on a broad number of fronts that Vice-President Cheney and others who are speeding the United States toward war on Iraq with a small "coalition of the willing" and without a UN resolution are not mentioning publicly. They include exacerbating both the economic downturn and the potential for terrorist attack at home, military failures and immediate battlefield chaos in Iraq, and the potential for a major humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq during and after an invasion.
For all the vice-president’s confidence, these massive uncertainties bear closer examination.
THE HOME FRONT. The total negative effects of war and post-conflict reconstruction on the already flagging US economy and on American taxpayers are uncertain. In fact, the White House itself has brazenly refused to project any cost estimates for the war whatsoever. In his Meet the Press appearance, Cheney refused to confirm a $100 billion price tag for the invasion — and he wasn’t arguing that number downward. "I can’t say that, Tim," said Cheney. The vice-president did note that Iraq had oil reserves, adding that they would "generate billions of dollars a year in cash flow if they get back to their production of roughly three million barrels of oil a day." Those resources will figure largely in any reconstruction of Iraq.
It is also worth noting, however, that some estimate the cost of war will go higher than Russert’s figure. In a November 2002 study that took in a wide range of economic factors and plated out both "short and favorable" and "protracted and unfavorable" war scenarios, Yale economics professor William Nordhaus set the costs between $121 billion on the low end — and as high as $1.6 trillion at the upper end.
But leave the line items for war and reconstruction in Iraq itself blank for a moment. As deficits climb on all fronts, Americans — via the White House — have already promised countries in the region a staggering amount of cash to get them to go along with the invasion. According to Monday’s Washington Post, the US Congress — and thus, American taxpayers — will soon be asked to approve "war-related" aid packages of $8 billion for Israel, $4.4 billion for Egypt, and $1 billion for Jordan. "The Egyptian request alone," Post staff writer Dan Morgan drily noted, "is equal to 25 percent of this year’s $16.3 billion U.S. foreign aid budget." For a US economy that’s already reeling, added Iraq-related expenditures are sure to leave American taxpayers poorer in the long run. But that seems to be the only sure thing about the White House’s march to war in Iraq.
Another home front uncertainty is the heightened risk of a terrorist attack on US soil — from Iraq, Al Qaeda or some other terrorist organization. The administration has been busily expelling Iraqi diplomats from the United States — and urging other nations to do so as well. Many terrorism experts have predicted that a US invasion and occupation of a post-Saddam Iraq could breed another wave of terrorists — funneled to existing groups, such as Al Qaeda or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, or to new terrorist groups.
Times of national adversity heighten tensions on the home front. The anthrax scare that terrorized media outlets, Congress, and ordinary citizens in the wake of September 11 illustrated how a simple, well-targeted terrorist act can sow seeds of panic. How will a nation transfixed by war respond to another such attack?
What to watch on the home front: The Dow; the terror-alert status.
THE INVASION. There seems to be little argument that the US has enough overwhelming force to invade Iraq successfully. And the Bush administration’s willingness to use ground forces almost guarantees that recent failures that stemmed from relying solely on US air power will not be repeated. In Kosovo, for example, tactical deception by Serbian commanders resulted in startlingly little damage to that country’s military forces. (It was, rather, continued NATO attacks on Serbian infrastructure and the threat of a ground invasion that ended the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.)
Yet what if US forces are not greeted (as Cheney put it) as "liberators?" One little-reported cautionary note is in order — the utter failure of a war game last August plotted closely to the impending US invasion. According to reports in the Guardian and the New York Times, the "Millenium Challenge" was the costliest (at $250 million) and most massive war game ever staged by the US military. It pitted US-led forces against what the Guardian described as "a militarily powerful Middle Eastern nation on the Persian Gulf that was home to a crazed but cunning megalomaniac."
Playing the megalomaniac in question during the war game was a retired Marine general named Paul Van Riper — who certainly added "crazed" and "cunning" to the equation. Before the invasion started, Van Riper hit the US fleet stationed in the Persian Gulf with suicidal and pre-emptive plane and boat attacks that sank much of the attacking fleet — including an aircraft carrier. A time out was called and the game was "reset" — and in the "do-over," Van Riper’s hands were often tied to allow US troops to land and attack. One can safely assume that Saddam’s forces — depleted and stricken with poor morale as they may be — won’t give US forces a "do-over."
The question of civilian casualties also looms large over the US-led attack on Iraq, especially considering how unpopular the war is in international opinion. As General Wesley Clark, who led the NATO war on Serbia in 1999, observes in the conclusion of his book, Waging Modern War [Public Affairs, 2001], "the most pressing drumbeat" of the bombing campaign was to "minimize, if not eliminate, civilian casualties." Clark also notes that "each incident of accidental harm to civilians sent shock waves up and down NATO." In a war as unpopular as the impending attack on Iraq, substantial and verifiable civilian casualties will further damage the war effort, as well as reconstruction and reconciliation in Iraq and throughout the world.
Just how the announced US bombing strategy of "Shock and Awe" will minimize civilian casualties is decidedly uncertain. Will the high-priced-munitions targets be located away from populated areas? Or will the warnings that "shock" and "awe" are the intended effect push the populace into shelters and basements and out of harm’s way? Heavy bombing with no civilian casualties will be highly difficult.
However, even if Iraq has no strategist with Van Riper’s skill and cunning and the US-led invasion goes well, any occupying force will no doubt face at least two immediate flash points in keeping the peace they have imposed. The most straightforward problem is the long-simmering conflict between the minority Sunni Muslims (who have enjoyed preferred status under Hussein’s rule) and the majority Shiite Muslims. The latter group rebelled in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War — and suffered brutal suppression by Saddam’s forces, or what was left of them. In southern Iraq, victorious US troops may have to shift instantaneously from invasion to peacekeeping. Unlike Bosnia or Kosovo, where US troops entered with political agreements in place, the situation in southern Iraq will be more volatile and fluid — including waves of violent reprisals by Shiites against Sunnis.
Even more vexing and dangerous is the situation in Northern Iraq. Since the end of the Gulf War, Kurds in the north of Iraq who had been subjected to genocidal attacks by Saddam (including poison gas) have been living in an autonomous and self-governing region — protected by US air power. Yet that oasis of Kurdish autonomy is now under threat on numerous fronts. The first front is internal, a split among Kurdish leaders themselves. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party have warred frequently — and talks about establishing a united front have had mixed success in the run-up to Gulf War II.
The second front is even more ominous — with implications for the region and NATO itself. Turkey has made it clear that it will not tolerate an independent Kurdish state on its border, and it already has a military presence in Northern Iraq — where a small Turkish minority called the Turkomen also reside. As part of the collapsed deal between Turkey and the United States for rights to stage a US-led military invasion from Turkey, the Turkish government insisted on a military presence in Northern Iraq.
Now that the deal is off, what stance will US troops in Northern Iraq take toward a Turkish military — particularly if Turkish troops occupy vital oil fields or suppress Kurds in the region? Throw in the recent arrival in Northern Iraq of yet another potentially hostile military force — Iraqi Shiite insurgents backed by Iran and its military — and the recipe for chaos during and after an invasion seems complete.
What to watch in the invasion: any disconnect between US military briefings and other news reports from Iraq; Turkish troop movements in Northern Iraq; status of the imposition of civil law and order in the invasion’s aftermath.