Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2003

Two weeks after U.S. and British forces launched their war against Iraq, the country's two major cities, Basra and Baghdad, are under siege. What have we learned so far in Iraq?

The first lesson is that the army and marines accomplished a remarkable 300-mile drive into southern Iraq in only five days and now stand on the outskirts of Baghdad. These forces moved up from Kuwait so rapidly that they outran a 400-truck supply convoy that was slowed by hit-and-run attacks from irregular Iraqi fighters.

The advance is reminiscent of the race across France in 1944 by General George Patton's tank corps until it ran out of fuel and was forced to pause.

A second notable accomplishment was that although British forces ran into stiff Iraqi resistance at Basra, they are now penetrating the city and will soon bring its fall. Sadly, Iraqi civilians who tried to flee the fighting there were shot by troops loyal to Saddam Hussein The British now control Iraq's only port at Umm Qasr and, with U.S. support, secured the southern oil fields before Saddam's troops could set them afire.

A third, less encouraging, lesson from the first weeks of war was that U.S. high-tech strategic bombing in Baghdad did not bring the downfall of Saddam's regime or end its resistance, as Pentagon optimists had predicted. A massive "shock and awe" aerial attack on Baghdad in the first days did not halt the war or lead to a revolt by Iraqi generals, as many in Washington had hoped. Whether Saddam survived a strategic attack on his bunker has not been established. But fierce resistance by his loyal troops continues.

Overconfidence will be a casualty of this war. Last year a senior Pentagon adviser predicted that defeating Saddam would be a "cakewalk". In fact, the looming battle for Baghdad resembles a conventional war fought with ground troops and close air support. This war will not end in a few weeks, as Vice President Cheney said in a "Meet the Press" interview on March l6. It will be bloodier and last longer than Pentagon leaders expected. Strategic bombing is useful when specific military targets are identified, but massive bombing, as employed in Vietnam, will not be used in Iraq because of Washington's deep concern about heavy civilian casualties.

In addition to the failure of precision bombing to end the war quickly, two other factors account for the expected prolongation of the conflict. First, Turkey's refusal to grant the United States use of its territory as a base to launch an invasion into northern Iraq was a major setback. Second, the fierce resistance shown by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard troops surprised U.S. and British commanders.

Turkey's reluctance to allow 60,000 U.S. troops to use its territory to set up a northern front dealt a severe blow to war plans developed by General Tommy Frank's command. However, overflight rights for the U.S. military to transport airborne troops and equipment into northern Iraq was granted. Lack of Turkish bases and the stiffer than expected resistance by Iraq's Republican Guard requires that more American troops are now needed for the coming battle to occupy Baghdad. Protecting the long supply lines from Kuwait to the outskirts of Baghdad may be a formidable task.

A critical factor for President Bush is American public support of the war. In a poll published in the Wall Street Journal on March 31 ("Americans Show Concern on Casualties), a remarkable 68 percent of respondents in a WSJ/NBC poll approved of the job President Bush is doing. Fifty percent expected the war to last three months or ore and, although 39 percent had doubts about whether the war was worth the number of military casualties, more than half thought that the war was "worth the number of casualties." Critics who previously claimed that the American public would not accept casualties in war may have second thoughts.

Various polls suggest two important realities: Americans continue to have confidence in George Bush's leadership and his conduct of the war. This contrasts with opinion polls in all other major countries except in Britain showing that public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the war, and to George Bush. Clearly, the United States has suffered a public relations debacle abroad, a serious problem that must be fixed diplomatically in coming months if Washington is to maintain its leadership role.

Few observers question that the United States will eventually prevail in this war. Saddam Hussein's regime will be crushed. The president needs to persuade European and rich Arab states to share the financial burden of rebuilding Iraq, fostering representative government, and ensuring freedom to the Iraqi people. But how many of them will join in the reconstruction of Iraq, particularly if the United Nations is excluded and the Pentagon is permitted to run a military occupation?

The severity of opposition from Saddam Hussein's troops and the continued outpouring of anti-American demonstrations in major cities abroad suggests that a reevaluation of U.S. postwar policy is in order. Involved in this process is how Mr. Bush deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which many observers believe gas contributed to widespread anti-Americanism in Europe and the Middle East.

Quite likely the building and sustaining of a stable government in Baghdad will turn out to be a more daunting task than winning the war.

File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST

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