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OK, I Was Wrong...

By John A. Cloud

THREE DAYS before the Gulf War ended, I wrote that "those who think conquering Iraq will take only a few days and light American casualties are tragically mistaken." I was wrong. But on the basis of evidence available at the time, this was the only logical conclusion.

Since the war's end, many of the congressional Democrats who voted against the resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force--especially those with presidential aspirations--have been scurrying about trying to minimize the political harm their votes have incurred.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Missouri) said before the war that if the President neglected to garner congressional approval for war before committing to a fight, he would lead the battle to cut off funding for the troops. Now Gephardt cannot find enough chances to praise the president and the troops.

Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who spearheaded the Senate effort to defeat the resolution, said on "Today" recently that he was only opposed to starting the ground war "prematurely." "I don't think they did prematurely start the ground war," Nunn said. But in the congressional hearings held before the war, Nunn had recommended that the president wait at least six months before committing to a war.

Such retrenchment is unnecessary and cowardly. Given the information the Bush administration made available before the war began, on almost every count--military, diplomatic, economic--this war should not have been fought.

IT IS DIFFICULT to argue with the success of the war militarily. Coalition forces stormed into Kuwait and Iraq almost unopposed, rolling over the Iraqi armed forces, including the so-called "elite" Republican Guard. American casualties incurred during the ground war numbered 23. Overall, in the six months since U.S. forces have been deployed in the Gulf, 90 Americans have died. Both supporters and opponents of the war, while mourning these casualties, marvel at the relatively low cost in lives.

But before the war, no one knew this would be the result. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of allied troops in the Gulf, said shortly after the war that he had expected a "60-day siege" of Iraq and Kuwait to push Saddam Hussein's forces out of the emirate. The massive buildup in the Gulf had deposited thousands of tons of supplies and ammunition on the Saudi desert for the long haul.

If Schwarzkopf expected a long war, what else could the American people expect? The airwaves were surfeited with predictions of more than 10,000 American dead during at least six weeks of fighting. Colorful maps on the networks and in most publications located the positions of well-entrenched Iraqi troops who had constructed near-impenetrable embankmentsto keep coalition forces from ousting them.

In addition, most feared that Saddam would use chemical weapons in any battle for the "19th province" of Iraq. He had used such weapons on his own citizens and on the Iranians. He brandished a military arsenal which included almost 5000 Soviet-made tanks whose poor performance in the ground war was a complete surprise to Western military experts. He reportedly commanded an army of more than one million, half of them battle-seasoned, unlike their green American foes.

Saddam's iron-fisted control over the Iraqi people meant that after a war began, he could wait--sit in his impregnable underground German-engineered fortress and wait while the Americans trotted out images of the Vietnam quagmire and became increasingly disillusioned as the bodybags came home. Many said he could do just what Ho Chi Minh had done--wait for a win by default as the American people grew disgusted with the Gulf War. A ground war simply could not be the right answer.

But to the surprise and horror of many Americans, President Bush moved hastily to end economic sanctions and began the air war just after the U.N. deadline. While this may seem like an intelligent move in retrospect, at the time sanctions were still a viable option. No military supplies had entered Iraq in months; Iraqi oil remained almost completely unsold. Even a limited air war would endanger the lives of many Iraqi civilians who could at least obtain food and medicine under the sanctions.

In addition, American military experts were predicting at least some resistance from the Iraqi air force--not the quick retreat to Iran that actually occurred. Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. and Gen. David C. Jones, both former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called on Bush to allow more time for sanctions to be effective, as did former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Perhaps sanctions would have failed in the long run, and we now know that the air war proved successful. But before January 16, continuing to enforce sanctions was the most logical and life-saving course of action.

And the fears were not only military. Diplomatic experts warned that a provocation of Saddam could only lead to attacks on Israel, which undoubtedly would spark reprisals and perhaps an Arab-Israeli war. This would splinter Bush's fragile coalition (if only for reasons of domestic dissent within Arab members of the coalition) and spur Arab support for Saddam Hussein.

But a war would crack the anti-Saddam coalition in other ways as well, it was feared. During the inevitably long war, Bush would be more willing to act unilaterally in an idiotic attempt to restore Pax Americana--thereby destroying the possibility for future collective security in the region, which would already be endangered by Israel's participation in the war.

And there were the economic considerations. Bush's decision to begin the air war came just as administration officials were admitting what the rest of the nation had known for months--that the United States economy had sunk into recession. Declining GNP and American share of world trade coupled with the huge deficits Bush inherited from Ronald Reagan meant the last thing the U.S. economy needed was a long, expensive war.

BUT NONE of this happened. No long quagmire, no massive numbers of American deaths, no diplomatic crisis, no Israeli reprisals for the Iraqi Scud attacks. Almost none of the horrible events predicted by the American intelligentsia and the U.S. government came true. So should we support the war now?

No. And there are two simple reasons. First, more than 150,000 Iraqi people have died since the war began on Jan. 16. While sanctions would have taken a huge toll on Iraq, they still provided for food and medicine to be distributed among the civilians. If Saddam had not pulled out of Kuwait unconditionally within a year and had taken the food for his troops only, a war may have been necessary. We will never know if those Iraqi lives could have been saved.

The second reason is that now, after the glory of a brief war which saw the enemy surrender in droves rather than face a superior army, Americans will be more willing to support military adventurism abroad--especially when the recession ends. The Gulf War was everything the Vietnam War was not--short, relatively casualty-free for Americans and eminently successful. If Vietnam put the U.S. in international doldrums, the Gulf War can only lead to even louder calls for Bush's "next American century."

Basking in the success of the war, hawks point out that they were right all along about Bush's no-holds-barred war policy. But Bush must have known something we did not. Any careful analysis of the military, economic and displomatic setting would have led to one conclusion--Bush should not have gone to war--not in the air or on land. Those who opposed the war were right to be wrong about its consequences.

...but I was right to be wrong. Bush must have held out on us.

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