After months of internal wrangling over tactics and strategy, it now appears that the White House has settled on the basic design for the US invasion of Iraq. President Bush was given a detailed plan for the assault on September 10, and it appears that key combat units have been moved to the Middle East or are being readied for deployment to the region. Although most of the world is still focused on the diplomatic whirlwind at the United Nations, American military personnel are behaving as if a war with Iraq is imminent. And while it is impossible to predict the exact day and hour when hostilities will commence, it is unlikely that “D-Day” will occur much later than the second or third week of February 2003.
That the Administration is fully committed to military action in its conflict with Iraq is no longer in question. Bush has said that nothing less than a regime change in Iraq will satisfy American objectives, and that UN support would be welcomed but is not considered a prerequisite for US action.
However, while there appears to be unanimity among top Administration officials on the need for a military assault on Iraq, there has been no such consensus regarding the precise form of such an attack. Senior military commanders with experience in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict have argued for a Desert Storm-like engagement involving hundreds of thousands of US combat troops, while civilian strategists in the Defense Department and some conservative think tanks have advocated a more daring and innovative approach, employing a relatively small contingent of ground troops backed up by the massive use of air power and precision-guided munitions. It appears that President Bush–under pressure from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney–has accorded primacy to the unconventional approach.
Bush favors this approach for several reasons. To begin with, the unconventional approach allows for a much earlier assault on Iraq than would be the case under the conventional one. Any replay of Desert Storm, however scaled down, would require the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops (plus all of their heavy equipment) from the United States and Europe to the Middle East. This task could not be completed until next spring, and so would require US forces to commence combat operations at the onset of the blistering desert summer. The unconventional plan, on the other hand, would entail fewer troop deployments and could be set in motion by early winter–the optimal time of year.
Adoption of the bolder plan also helps the United States get around the problems created by the reluctance of some friendly Arab countries, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to allow the use of their territory as a staging ground for the US invasion of Iraq. An army of 250,000 combatants would almost certainly require the use of bases in Saudi Arabia, as was the case during the 1991 conflict; a force of 50,000 can be assembled in Kuwait, Qatar and some of the other small Gulf kingdoms.
But it is ideology, most of all, that appears to govern the President’s choice of strategic options. By starting the war in January or February, the Administration would escape more than the summer heat–it would short-circuit the diplomatic process at the UN and undercut any international effort to rely on UN arms inspectors to complete the “disarmament” of Iraq. Even while pushing for a favorable resolution at the UN Security Council, US officials have warned that the time for diplomacy is rapidly running out. “We’re talking days and weeks, not months and years,” President Bush said of the time that should be given to Saddam Hussein to comply with UN demands for the disclosure and destruction of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) remaining in his possession.