Sunday, February 16, 2003


March versus October

One thing that suggests to me that President Bush's strategic sense isn't working properly is that all signs seem to indicate that he is ready to go to war in March with only a "coallition of the willing." The dangers of this policy are threefold:

(1) Risking that the war will not be over until the weather starts to get really hot in the middle of April.

(2) Splitting the alliance between European powers and the United States that has existed since World War II, and placing Germany, France, Russia, and China together in a common community of interest publicly opposed to the asserted strategic interests of the United States. This will also make it easier for these countries to refuse to help us in the reconstruction of Iraq following our victory.

(3) Undermining the U.N. as an international body that might assist with the reconstruction of Iraq.

Suppose instead that Bush called France's bluff and allowed for several more rounds of inspections to dog Saddam through the summer. Then, assuming that Saddam is still playing cat and mouse, he could press for an attack in October, when the weather turns cold. After six months of inspections, the other members of the security council might well be fed up with Saddam and Bush would have his U.N. support. This would keep the Atlantic alliance together, prevent NATO from unravelling, and bolster the idea of using the U.N. as an international forum for identifying, deterring and punishing rogue states like Iraq. And, one other thing, Bush could fight all fall and winter long without worrying about the weather.

Finally, although this has little to do with the geopolitical interests of the United States, the October strategy would also have political advantages at home. Bush could insist that he was not rushing to war, but gave inspections as much time as our European allies wanted. This would completely undermine Democratic criticisms that he is being unilateral. And he could begin the war in October 2003 and conclude it at the beginning of 2004. This would boost his poll ratings when they are needed most-- just before the 2004 campaign begins. Ending a successful war at the beginning of 2004-- instead of the middle of 2003-- could do wonders for his chances at reelection in 2004.

If the October strategy makes more sense than the March strategy both practically and politically, why isn't Bush following it?

In fact, we don't know that he isn't going to follow it. He still has plenty of time to do so, and announcing more inspections at the last moment will make him look like someone who did his best to avoid war as long as possible, instead of a warmonger, which much of Europe now sees him as being.

Nevertheless, there are two reasons why he may not do so. First, he has assembled a very large contingent of forces in the vicinity. Keeping those forces there is very expensive. It is not clear that he is willing to keep them there for six months. Having mobilized them, it will be costly and difficult to demobilize them without sending the wrong signal to Saddam. If he were really thinking about October rather than March, he probably should have built his forces up more slowly.

Second, Bush has shown in the past that when he wants something, he goes after it, regardless of criticism from those who disagree with him. He has made so many signs that he plans to attack with or without the U.N.'s approval that a turn around at this point would be a true stunner. Moreover, holding back now might be interpreted as a sign that the French have persuaded us, rather than a sign that we have persuaded them. I'm not sure that the Bush Administration wants to send such a signal, either to our allies, or to Saddam.

Nevertheless, I continue to hope against hope that he surprises everyone and gives the inspections more time. Bush may be belligerent and stubborn, but he has also shown himself to be cunning and shrewd on occasion. The October strategy is so much better on so many dimensions that no one-- least of all Bush himself-- can afford to rule it out.


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