Bush’s Gulf War syndrome

Far from being a 'safe bet', the USA's plans to attack Iraq have highlighted its inability to act decisively

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Far from being a ‘safe bet’, the Bush administration’s plans to attack Iraq have highlighted its inability to act decisively. What went wrong?

News headlines on 10 July 2002 reported that President Bush is planning ‘a massive, full-scale military conquest of Iraq’ (1).

Apparently, the conquest will involve ‘five ground force divisions numbering 200,000, two Marine Corps divisions, and 15 US fighters and bombers’, with ‘Britain expected to provide as many as 25,000 troops for a total on-the-ground force of 250,000 men’ (2). ‘Saddam needs to go’, declared Bush.

But five days later, on 15 July 2002, Associated Press reported that the US military doesn’t have enough bombs to launch an attack on Iraq. ‘A serious shortage in the number of the Pentagon’s Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs may have helped postpone an attack on Iraq earlier this year’, claimed reports (3). At the start of this year, one newspaper claimed that the bomb shortage had ‘thrown plans for a full-scale strike on Iraq into disarray’, while a military expert said: ‘[America’s] only real option as far as Iraq is concerned is to sit tight and replenish stocks.’ (4)

‘USA to attack Iraq via Jordan’ ran the headlines on 7 July 2002, with the UK Observer revealing that ‘American military planners are preparing to use Jordan as a base for an assault on Iraq’ (5). Leaked Pentagon documents indicated that Jordan would be ‘crucial’ to the conquest of Iraq. ‘Jordan will be the “jumping-off” point for an attack that could involve up to 250,000 American troops’, claimed one paper (6).

But two days later, on 9 July 2002, Jordan insisted that ‘it will not allow US troops to be stationed on its territory to mount an attack on Iraq’. Jordan’s information minister told reporters, ‘We refuse to be a launching pad or arena for any act against our brotherly state Iraq or to use our soil and airspace to attain this objective’ (7) – while one UK journalist asked, ‘Did America make Jordan central to its attack plans without checking with them first…?’

‘USA has support for Iraq attack’ said a BBC News headline earlier this year, as US vice president Dick Cheney said America’s war on Iraq ‘would be backed by the international community’ (8). ‘[I]f aggressive action is required, I would anticipate that there will be the appropriate support both from the American people and the international community’, claimed Cheney, who said he was also confident that ‘Iraq’s neighbours’ would help the USA to sort out Saddam.

But recent polls show that a small and declining majority of American people support sending US troops to topple Saddam, down from about 70 percent in March 2002 to 59 percent in July 2002 (9). According to one US journalist: ‘We seem to be distant observers of our own nation’s preparation for war, watching…a process we have nothing to do with and cannot affect.’ (10)

As for Iraq’s neighbours helping the USA to ‘sort out Saddam’ – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even the Kurds of northern Iraq have questioned America’s plans to invade, with the Washington Post reporting that ‘Iraq’s neighbours fear instability [and] loss of trade if the USA pursues an ouster of Saddam’ (11).

What’s going on? Is the USA planning a massive military conquest, or does it need to build more bombs first? Does the Bush administration have the backing of the ‘civilised world’ (as one US Senator calls it), or is it increasingly isolated in its plans to attack Iraq? According to one US journalist: ‘The Bush administration knows it wants to bomb Iraq and it knows it wants to get rid of Saddam – it just doesn’t know when, how or why to do it.’

Since Bush labelled Iraq part of his ever-expanding ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union address on 30 January 2002, his administration has talked a good fight against Saddam, but has done little else. The US authorities have upped the war talk against Iraq and have unveiled (or leaked) a number of (often contradictory) invasion plans, but they seem increasingly incapable of acting in a decisive or unified way. According to the Independent on Sunday, never has a war been ‘so heavily signposted so long in advance, to the general indifference of so many’ (12).

America’s policy on Iraq has sounded confused from the start of 2002. On 8 January 2002, a ‘top Pentagon official’ insisted that Iraq was not in America’s sights. ‘Once the Afghan campaign is complete’, reported the Independent, ‘America will turn the focus of its anti-terror offensive to countries such as Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines and Indonesia, but not against Iraq’ (13). A US defence spokesman declared that Saddam would be dealt with ‘in time’, but not as an ‘urgent priority in the war on terror’.

But three weeks later, Bush used his State of the Union address to announce the axis of evil – made up of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, three countries that he imagines are a ‘threat to the West’. Bush claimed that Iraq ‘continues to flaunt its hostility towards America and to support terror’ (14), and that its alleged attempts to ‘develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons’ made it a prime target for the next stage of the war on terror.

Within days, Bush was backtracking about the other two axis of evil nations, with the International Herald Tribune reporting that ‘USA softens tone on two of the “axis” nations’ (15). But US officials kept the heat on Iraq, describing it as ‘patently more evil’ than Iran and North Korea.

America’s increasing hostility towards Iraq seems to have been driven more by the failures of the Afghan campaign than by any threat coming from Saddam. Indeed, on 31 January 2002, the day after Bush’s axis of evil speech, the UN nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iraq had ‘cooperated fully’ with the routine annual inspection of its factories, political buildings and other potential weapons holds that have been carried out since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

‘During our inspection, representatives from the Iraqi Atomic Agency commission were present for the whole time and all help that is necessary to perform the inspections was provided by the Iraqi authorities’, said Anrzey Pietruzewski, head of the IAEA team (16). As usual, the weapons inspectors found nothing suspicious – but why should Bush let reality get in the way of his rhetoric?

According to the CIA itself, Iraq does not pose a threat to the West. A week after the axis of evil speech, the New York Times reported that ‘the CIA has no evidence that Iraq has engaged in terrorist operations against the United States in nearly a decade, and the spy agency also is convinced that Saddam Hussein has not provided chemical or biological weapons to al-Qaeda or related terrorist groups’ (17).

In February 2002, Turkish prime minister Bulnet Ecevit told the world that Iraq is keen to kickstart peaceful negotiations with Western leaders. ‘Words that could be understood as meaning Iraq is ready to find a compromise were said’, claimed Ecevit, after meeting with Saddam Hussein in the wake of Bush’s State of the Union address (18). Around the same time, Iraq announced that it was ready to have ‘unconditional talks’ with the United Nations – ‘part of a concerted effort by Baghdad to improve its world standing’, as one report put it.

Yet during late January and February 2002, as Iraq made conciliatory gestures towards the West, the Bush administration continued to up the anti-Iraqi stakes. This captured how America’s hostility towards Saddam was driven by domestic considerations – an attempt to give the Bush administration a sense of purpose, mission and direction – rather than by any Iraqi threat. And the less success Bush and co had in the war in Afghanistan, the more they turned their sights towards Iraq.

January 2002 – the month the Bush administration rediscovered that Iraq was a big bad threat that needed to be sorted out – was also the month that many of failures of the Afghan campaign came to a head. The US authorities were forced to admit that, after three months of searching, they were no closer to capturing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or former Taliban frontman Muhammad Omar. ‘There are plenty of potential leads about people’, said a senior Bush official. ‘We just don’t know what is true and what is not.’

January was also the month that New Yorker magazine revealed that ‘a US-approved evacuation of Pakistani military officers and intelligence advisers during the siege of Kunduz last November “slipped out of control” and a number of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters joined the exodus’ (19). ‘Dirt got through the screen’ said one senior US intelligence official (20) – his way of explaining that a number of the enemy escaped in broad daylight in full view of US soldiers.

In mid-January 2002, Bush said that the war on terror was against the ‘shadowy enemy dwelling in dark corners of the Earth’ (21) – a statement that captured the USA’s lack of confidence as much as it did its lack of intelligence. In the midst of an increasingly disastrous Afghan war, shifting the attention towards Iraq was America’s desperate attempt to give that ‘shadowy enemy’ some definition.

Bush even declared in March 2002 that bin Laden was no longer a big threat to the West. ‘I truly am not that concerned about him – I know he is on the run’, said Bush, describing bin Laden as ‘a person who has now been marginalised’ (22). Why the sudden turnaround? Because according to Bush, all ‘people who love freedom [should] be concerned about Iraq’, and the West must now turn its guns towards Saddam. A clear case of: Can’t find bin Laden? Bomb Saddam!

It’s no big shock that the Bush administration is now targeting Iraq – that is what American presidents do when they need to boost their international standing and galvanise audiences at home and abroad. Bush seinor did it with the devastating Gulf War of 1991, which left much of Iraq destroyed and 180,000 dead. And Bill Clinton did it intermittently throughout the 1990s, with joint British/US air strikes in December 1998 to ‘stop Saddam from developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons’ (sound familiar?).

So BBC News argued that the current Bush administration sees Iraq as a ‘safe bet’. ‘Bush is likely to harness his current popular support to justify an attack against Iraq’, predicts the BBC, ‘particularly as Saddam Hussein is considered on a par with bin Laden in terms of “evilness”’ (23). But the plans to attack Iraq haven’t been the ‘safe bet’ that Bush and co may have anticipated. Where previous US administrations were confident that Iraq was the one place they could stand tall and look down on the world, Bush junior’s Iraq plans have been beset by contradictions and uncertainty.

The US authorities are tearing themselves apart over how and when to invade Iraq. Some Bush administration aides prefer the idea of small-scale military involvement, where a few hundred special forces would help dissidents within Iraq to overthrow Saddam – while some military officials are demanding an all-out military mobilisation, with 250,000 US troops laying siege to Baghdad.

On 19 June 2002, one report claimed that American officials were planning a ‘more limited assault – using American special forces working with opposition forces on the ground, along the Afghanistan model’. Two weeks later, on 5 July 2002, the New York Times leaked a military document that claimed there would be a ‘massive assault’ on Iraq: ‘[The] military planning document calls for air, land and sea-based forces to attack Iraq from three directions – north, south and west – in a campaign to topple Saddam’ (24).

According to the London Times, these differences of opinion are the result of ‘personality clashes’ that have come to the fore as America has put Iraq centre stage. ‘Personality clashes have…frustrated the war planning’, says The Times (25). ‘Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, believes strongly that the mission should be focused entirely on Saddam…. Colin Powell, the secretary of state, wants a broader brief, to include the transition to a democratic successor regime, the kind of nation-building that Bush [has] derided….’ (26)

The Times concludes that the war talk over Iraq ‘pitches Rumsfeld against Powell, a faultline that is likely to grow as planning intensifies’ (27).

In response to internal divisions, some US officials have suggested a ‘third way’ attack on Iraq, a messy compromise between plans for a small-scale intervention and plans for an all-out invasion. ‘[Some] have argued that the job in Iraq could be accomplished with air strikes backed by several hundred special-operations soldiers, working in conjunction with Iraqi opposition forces and defectors’, reported the Wall Street Journal (28) – indicating that the third way option is just to do everything all at once. Or, as an ABC News headline suggested, ‘US has no answers on how to unseat Saddam…’ (29).

According to the London Times, such is the confusion among US officials over what to do about Iraq that ‘some diplomats in Washington doubt whether an invasion will happen. One said: “I know [Bush] wants to do it, but when you look at everything involved, I still don’t see how he does it.”’ (30)

The lack of agreement and unity among US officials is best illustrated by the continuous leaking of internal military documents on Iraq to the media. Some insiders claim that US military leaders themselves are leaking the documents, in an attempt to put US politicians off launching all-out war.

As the Independent reports: ‘[A]nalysts believe the source of the leak to be military commanders who believe the politicians are blithely talking up an operation whose potential cost in casualties for US forces they do not fully appreciate.’ (31) This suggests that, for all the heated war talk, the military might not be as ready and willing to overthrow Saddam as some suggest.

Others claim that the leaks are coming from Donald Rumsfeld’s defence department, because ‘not everyone in defence is convinced that we should invade Iraq’ (32). When Rumsfeld sent an internal memo to his staff with ‘a stern warning…about the dangers of leaking military secrets to the media’, someone allegedly leaked it to the media (33).

One US Senator claims there is a ‘broad-based consensus among the American people regarding Saddam Hussein’ – but consensus is notable by its absence among America’s military planners and politicians. Far from uniting America around a common sense of purpose and mission, the anti-Iraq war talk seems only to have exposed differences and brought internal divisions to the fore. Instead of presenting the media with a clear argument for bombing Iraq, different sections of the US establishment have leaked competing visions to hacks in an attempt to undermine their internal opponents. Far from bringing the Bush administration together, the plans to invade Iraq seem to have ripped it apart.

The inability of the US authorities to agree a definite plan of action has been compounded by the lukewarm response from Iraq’s neighbours. Despite the leaked military document claiming that America would attack Iraq from three sides – using Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan as ‘jumping-off points’ – nearly all Iraq’s neighbours have rejected plans for an American invasion.

‘The last thing we want is a confrontation’, said a Washington Post headline earlier this year, reporting that ‘throughout the Middle East, and even within Iraq, misgivings about a possible US offensive have multiplied steadily since Bush’s State of the Union address’ (34). Media headlines since then reveal the lack of enthusiasm in the Middle East for a war on Iraq: ‘Turkey will not tolerate unilateral US action against Iraq’; Saudis ‘refuse to let America use bases for attacks on Iraq’; ‘Arab states united in rejecting attack on Saddam’; ‘Jordan rejects US invasion plan’; ‘Kurdish leader shuns US move to oust Saddam’.

In March 2002, one US newspaper reported: ‘There is a keen sense of déjà vu in Dick Cheney’s tour of the Middle East to rally support against Iraq. But this is no replay of the mission he made as defence secretary in 1990 when the USA was building its mighty 28-nation coalition to liberate Kuwait from Iraq. Today, no Arab state is rushing to support US-led military action. Unlike 12 years ago, Cheney can expect military support from no more than two or three countries.’ (35)

As state after state rejected America’s proposals to invade Iraq, any hopes that this could galvanise the world like the Gulf War did – with Cheney, Rumsfeld and others who were part of the last Bush administration sorting out unfinished business – were soon dashed.

The American public may support invading Iraq (although that support seems to be declining), but there seems to be little enthusiasm for it, and certainly not the same kind of patriotic war fever that existed in 1991. According to one US journalist: ‘In recent polls, when weighing whether Washington should use military force to unseat Hussein, the public becomes more tentative in its backing, diverging from the drum-beating rhetoric of President Bush.’ (36)

Ironically, the public’s lack of enthusiasm seems only to be exacerbated by Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair’s desperate attempts to convince us that Saddam must be dealt with. Both leaders assured us that there was ‘very good reason’ to invade Iraq, and both promised to produce substantial dossiers of evidence of Saddam’s wrongdoing.

But in early April 2002, Bush ‘deferred plans to reveal findings on Iraq’, as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict took up too much of his time – while Blair ‘indefinitely delayed publishing a dossier revealing damning evidence against Saddam’ (37). Under the headline ‘Blair steps back from Iraq fight’, the UK Guardian reported in April 2002 that ‘in a sign that Britain recognises that open prosecution of a war against Iraq is politically impossible, Downing Street has deferred plans to publish [its evidence], which purports to show how Saddam is…building weapons of mass destruction’ (38). Despite ditching the evidence, both Bush and Blair continued to use the weapons of mass destruction line in an attempt to win our support for invading Iraq.

Around the same time, US officials played a desperate card – alleging that Iraq is linked to al-Qaeda. At the end of March 2002, CIA director George Tenet claimed that ‘Baghdad has a long history of supporting terrorism [and] it has also had contact with al-Qaeda’ (though, as BBC News noted, ‘Mr Tenet did not present any new hard evidence of Iraqi collusion with al-Qaeda’ (39)). Considering that focusing on Saddam was likely an attempt to turn attention away from US failures over al-Qaeda, linking the two captured America’s difficulty with clearly defining its enemy and deciding who to take on.

Bush and Blair’s obsession with dossiers of evidence highlighted their uncertainty over invading Iraq – where they were more concerned with showing us photographs and maps and every little detail about Iraq’s alleged weapons-building scheme, rather than putting a convincing political case for an invasion. But then, neither exists – neither a good political argument for bombing Iraq, nor any evidence whatsoever that Iraq is threat to the West.

In the absence of evidence, the US authorities have taken their most desperate measure yet – with some commentators claiming that the military leaks are an attempt to force Saddam’s hand, to make him do something irrational, in order to justify launching an attack against him. As the Independent reports: ‘[O]thers take the [leaks] as part of a process of softening up President Saddam, forcing him into a rash move that would give Washington the pretext it required’ (40).

This is the politics of the playground – with Bush and Blair talking a good fight and cajoling their opponent, while seeming fearful and cautious about having an all-out scrap.

The West’s obsession with Iraq has always told us more about the West than it has about Iraq. For the past 10 years, US leaders have used Iraq as the one place they can attack in order to boost their international standing and improve their ratings at home. Now, the Bush administration seems to be having difficulty pulling off even this well-worn trick.

Nothing significant has changed in Iraq itself. Indeed, after the devastating Gulf War of 1991 and stringent sanctions since then, there is much to suggest that Saddam is weaker than he has ever been. Rather, America’s cautiousness over when, how and why to attack Iraq reveals much about the West’s state of mind, where Western leaders are increasingly fearful of getting too involved and doing anything too decisive.

Bush may well invade Iraq, this year or next – but it will be a war as lacking in conviction as it is in public enthusiasm and evidence of an Iraqi threat.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:
spiked-issue: War on Iraq

When in doubt, attack Iraq , by Mick Hume

No facts on Iraq, by Tom Reed

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) US plans massive invasion of Iraq, United Press International, 10 July 2002

(2) US plans massive invasion of Iraq, United Press International, 10 July 2002

(3) US restocking attack munitions may presage Iraq campaign, Stratfor, 18 July 2002

(4) US missile shortage delays Iraq strike, Daily Telegraph, 30 December 2001

(5) US ‘to attack Iraq via Jordan’, Guardian, 7 July 2002

(6) US ‘to attack Iraq via Jordan’, Guardian, 7 July 2002

(7) Jordan refuses to allow launchpad for invasion, Guardian, 10 July 2002

(8) US ‘has support for Iraq attack’, BBC News, 15 February 2002

(9) Invading Iraq: would the public go along?, Christian Science Monitor, 17 July 2002

(10) Who wants this war?, Washington Post, 12 July 2002

(11) ‘The last thing we want is a confrontation’, Washington Post, 28 February 2002

(12) We’re coming to get you Saddam (but it may take a little while), Independent on Sunday, 21 July 2002

(13) Somalia and Yemen, not Iraq, likely to be targets of American military action, Independent, 9 January 2002

(14) Full text: State of the Union address, BBC News, 30 January 2002

(15) US softens tone on two ‘axis’ nations, International Herald Tribune, 18 February 2002

(16) Iraq cooperated with nuclear inspection – IAEA, Reuters, 31 January 2002

(17) Iraqi terror hasn’t hit US in years, says CIA, New York Times, 6 February 2002

(18) Turk PM says Iraq may be ready to compromise, Reuters, 12 February 2002

(19) ‘US enabled al-Qaeda fighters to flee Kunduz’, Reuters, 20 January 2002

(20) ‘US enabled al-Qaeda fighters to flee Kunduz’, Reuters, 20 January 2002

(21) Big boost for military spending, BBC News, 24 January 2002

(22) US will take action against Iraq, Bush says, Washington Post, 14 March 2002

(23) ‘Will Bush declare war on Iraq?’, BBC News Analysis and Research, July 2002

(24) ‘US plan for Iraq is said to include attack on three sides’, New York Times, 5 July 2002

(25) American elections dictate timing of an attack on Iraq, The Times (London), 11 July 2002

(26) American elections dictate timing of an attack on Iraq, The Times (London), 11 July 2002

(27) American elections dictate timing of an attack on Iraq, The Times (London), 11 July 2002

(28) Problems with Iraq invasion plans, Wall Street Journal, 15 July 2002

(29) US has no answers on how to unseat Saddam, ABC News, 15 July 2002

(30) American elections dictate timing of an attack on Iraq, The Times (London), 11 July 2002

(31) America rattles Saddam’s cage, hoping he will lash out in anger, Independent, 13 July 2002

(32) America rattles Saddam’s cage, hoping he will lash out in anger, Independent, 13 July 2002

(33) Rumsfeld scolds staff over press leaks, BBC News, 17 July 2002

(34) ‘The last thing we want is a confrontation’, Washington Post, 28 February 2002

(35) Unlike 1990, Arab support for attacking Iraq is tepid, Christian Science Monitor, 14 March 2002

(36) Invading Iraq: would the public go along?, Christian Science Monitor, 17 July 2002

(37) Blair steps back from Iraq fight, Guardian, 1 April 2002

(38) Blair steps back from Iraq fight, Guardian, 1 April 2002

(39) US says Iraq linked to al-Qaeda, BBC News, 19 March 2002

(40) America rattles Saddam’s cage, hoping he will lash out in anger, Independent, 13 July 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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