Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Baghgrad?

Removing Saddam from Baghdad.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Like Hitler, Saddam Hussein has shown flashes of strategic caginess — in summer 1990 gobbling up Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia before perplexed diplomats realized what he was really up to. And also like all such megalomaniacs, he ultimately displays the classic symptoms of imbecilic overreach.

As with Napoleon’s or Hitler’s insane invasions of Russia — or Japan’s attacks on England and America while bogged down in China and with a hostile Soviet Union nearby — so too Saddam’s arrogance predictably sealed his own fate. His armies did not merely pillage and then leave Kuwait in triumph — a gambit that would have blackmailed the Gulf kingdoms for a generation, jacked up the price of oil, guaranteed him by 1995 an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons, and avoided war with and defeat by the United States — but rather stupidly tried to annex it outright.

Yet along the way Saddam has shown amazing resilience and an occasional diabolic unpredictability that we should still keep carefully in mind. We thought him crazy to fight a conventional war against an American-led army in an open desert. Instead, he counted on our generosity of spirit in allowing him to live, and thus to boast that survival against such odds was, in fact, victory for a lone-beleaguered Arab nation fighting Westerners and Israel. And to a certain degree he was right, if the present-day pan-Arab tolerance for — and even private admiration of — such a cutthroat are any indication.

The first Bush administration — despite all the creative postbellum exegeses — failed to grasp that the purpose of war is always to achieve a strategic closure, in this case the removal of the reason we had to go to war in the first place: Saddam Hussein himself. He was what Thucydides called the aitia — the truest cause — of the war. Had Gettysburg been followed a year afterward by the election of McClellan and a tolerance of continued slavery, then all those thousands killed really would have fallen in vain. Like the allies at Versailles in 1919 who let the Germans surrender in France and Belgium, in the years after the first Gulf War we sought a tough armistice — inspections, no-fly zones, sanctions, and boycotts — without first ensuring that the enemy felt defeated. Generosity is preferable in peace, but only when adversaries have first been crushed in battle and disgraced afterward.

So in some sense, Saddam, the illiterate peasant — and not our degreed generals and nuanced diplomats — knew his history. He, not us, better understood that our devastating victory on the field of battle in 1991 was not synonymous with real resolution. Along the way, his tactic of using Western hostages as human shields, sending 39 Scuds into Israel, torching the oil fields of Kuwait, and murdering Shiites and Kurds within sight of victorious but impotent American troops revealed a ruthless audacity that for a time caught both Israel and us off-guard.

What, then, can we expect from such an erratic schemer this time? He has learned that a conventional battle with the United States amounts to a circus in which thousands of poor draftees surrender to either helicopters or Italian reporters. Therefore we should realize that Saddam accepts that on Day One of the next war, he will lose his entire air space. He concedes as well that, a few days later, what provincial conscripts do not surrender will, like the Taliban, be obliterated in the field. Some regional cities staffed by such units could fall within hours to coalition forces and popular uprisings.

In short, his only real alternative is to circle his wagons in Baghdad and accept the realization that his own people loathe rather than support him. We see that popular discontent as a given and to our great advantage; he accepts the former reality, but not altogether the latter.

Why? This time we are not necessarily at war with the Iraqi people — blood-drunk on Kuwaiti loot, fleeing from rapine on the highway of death, arrogant with dreams of conquered provinces in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and not yet suffering from sanctions and boycotts. Instead, we often ask, Are Iraqis belligerents to be defeated or victims to be liberated? Will they fight and join us to be freed — or watch on the sidelines as neutrals to gauge the ebb and flow?

And herein lies the problem: We are suddenly supposedly at war not with tens of thousands of veteran conscripts in the desert, but only with 50,000 or so tribal thugs who owe everything to Saddam, killers who have everything to lose with his defeat and nothing to gain with a humane government in his place. Ensconced in Baghdad — in private homes, mosques, hospitals, and tunnels — with access to biological weapons and perhaps a few Scuds — in theory they will be hard to evict and harder to hit amid women and children as they strike from afar. They are, in other words, analogous to the Taliban gangsters in Kabul or Kandahar — only more numerous, savvier, and perhaps with a few missiles and lots of germs.

In addition, it is no accident that Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, and Hezbollah leaders have all felt at home in Baghdad, or that he sends subsidies to Hamas killers on the West Bank. We should expect, then, that Saddam has access to terrorists and can pass frightful weapons to them with which to strike from the outside while he is besieged. Our pundits dicker over whether there is “proof” he works with al Qaeda — heedless of the fact that every terrorist of the last two decades has sought money, sanctuary, and weaponry from Iraq.

Yet should an Iraqi Scud or terrorist agent spread anthrax in Israel or contaminate Oman, whom are we going to hit back? And if we don’t retaliate, will we establish a precedent that a Middle East psychopath can send germs against American troops with impunity? Last time, whispers of a tactical nuclear response against the Euphrates dams might have proved a deterrent to his use of poisons, but not now. Saddam is as much at war with his own people as we are, and sees their very hatred of him as an odd sort of lever with us. Why would America bomb or destroy a citizenry and infrastructure through which we hope to implant democratic government — especially one that is daily transmogrifying into desperate victims rather than supporters of fascism?

If Saddam can hold out for a month or two in Fortress Baghdad, use his own population of millions as veritable hostages whom he prays will be casualties to collateral bombing damage, snipe at Americans who venture Mogadishu-fashion into his redoubt, and like Chechens send out an occasional salvo or some terrorists to cause havoc — he believes he can create a war of attrition and wage it with a few thousand diehards hidden among the general population. Under such a scenario, merely his continued survival will be a rallying cry that not only might change Iraqi opinion, but could galvanize the Arab street should Americans or Jews start dying in real numbers.

Or so he thinks.

Fortunately, we neither need to blast through Baghdad to fight the Republican Guard house-to-house in a Grozny-like operation, nor in retaliation for a dirty Scud nuke his dams or cities. Fortress Baghdad need not be stormed as was Stalingrad, but only stewed — surrounded, cut off, and squeezed. As his control is carved away province by province, mass exoduses from a surrounded capital could begin. Milosevic and Noriega both dared the United States to enter their strongholds; instead we realized that the combination of a few precision bombs on key elites, stealthy raids, and American magnanimity would convince hirelings that their submission was the better part of national valor.

Conventional forces can quickly win the skies and occupy most of the country without terrible losses on either side. The key will be in sealing off Baghdad, carefully obliterating by precision bombing Saddam’s key installations — and key people, by any means necessary — and then only at the proper time inserting armored columns to occupy whole neighborhoods. Taking Baghdad will be tricky, but not at all impossible or even a necessarily protracted task — if we exercise patience and do not become too reckless.

The sight of the individual estates and headquarters of Baathist grandees going up in smoke will have a powerful effect. Not only will such GPS-guided destruction weaken the Hussein thugocracy, it will also send a visible message to Iraqi onlookers about who and what is and is not targeted — and why. In this new war, terrorists and abettors of terror are slowly learning that a smart missile can hunt out and vaporize their own lavish nests — a sort of Westernized mechanical intruder every bit as scary and deadly as their own al Qaeda suicide-bombers.

Finally, we should remember that we are not battling fanatical Germans in Berlin nor grim Russians in Stalingrad, but more a band of felons and murderers who, as of yet, have fought against Iranian conscripts and defenseless Shiite and Kurdish women and children — but not against American Rangers, Marines, Special Forces, and Air Force pilots, who in Saigon and Hue during the Tet Offensive, in Panama City, and in Belgrade showed their skill in expelling far more formidable urban enemies without themselves suffering large numbers of casualties.

Much now is written of the ferocity of the Republican Guard, but we should recall that they were hours away from obliteration in 1991 — and were saved then only by a magnanimity that will not be repeated by a post-9/11 America.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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