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Iraq Special Report

  Limited Campaign Could Limit Success

    big bomb
USS Enterprise sailors move ordnance to a weapons elevator for delivery to the flight deck on Tuesday. (AP)
By Rick Atkinson and Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A1

President Clinton last night laid out a loose skein of aims for the latest Persian Gulf military campaign, ranging from punishing Iraqi recalcitrance and shoring up U.S. credibility to compelling compliance with U.N. Security Council mandates and crippling Baghdad's enduring ambitions for weapons of mass destruction.

The most ambitious and heartfelt objective, however, is one that went unspoken except in Clinton's call for "a new Iraqi government": deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. U.S. planners hope that precise intelligence coupled with new refinements in precision weaponry will compensate for any shortfall in firepower, allowing the attacks to either fatally weaken the underpinnings of Saddam Hussein's regime or kill him outright.

While certainly lethal, the forces at hand are a pale shadow of those mustered for the first Persian Gulf War eight years ago, particularly given the multiple objectives enumerated by the commander in chief last night. Several hundred Tomahawk missiles and air-launched cruise missiles, and a few hundred sorties by attack aircraft, will degrade Iraq's capacity for building weapons of mass destruction and for threatening its neighbors. But as the Gulf War demonstrated, that sort of military pummeling does not necessarily yield a political victory if Saddam Hussein remains defiantly in power.

The definition of success may be even more difficult in Gulf War II than it was in Gulf War I, where the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty – the preeminent war objective – provided tangible proof of an allied victory. Without a change of regime in Baghdad, the chief trophy for the Clinton administration will be Iraqi rubble – perhaps at a cost of terminating U.N. weapons inspections and the last shred of big power harmony on Iraq.

Despite the efforts of Clinton and other senior U.S. officials to portray the attack as an effort to reinvigorate the United Nations inspection regime, some analysts said it was more likely to end the inspection system once and for all. That would leave the United States and the United Nations attempting to impose an arms control regime on Iraq solely through sanctions and other external pressures. "We are going to war to get rid of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, yet we are jeopardizing if not destroying our prospects of getting Saddam's weapons of mass destruction," said William M. Arkin, author of a highly regarded analysis of the 1991 air campaign.

Some U.S. intelligence officials believe the Iraqi dictator is increasingly vulnerable to internal dissent, external opposition and regional isolation. Two of Saddam Hussein's sons, Qusay and Uday, recently have been given expanded authority, making nearly all of the ruling Baath Party senior officials and government ministries subordinate to one or the other of them. Those moves are interpreted by intelligence sources to indicate substantial rivalries within the inner circle.

But the Iraqi leader has survived turmoil and palace intrigue for decades, just as he survived a concerted U.S. attempt in 1991 at "decapitation" – notwithstanding the public fiction by U.S. officials that no Iraqi individuals had been targeted.

As for compelling Iraq to "come into cooperation" and "comply" with U.N. mandates, as Clinton put it, air power as a tool of coercive diplomacy rarely has been effective. The allied coalition during the 43-day Gulf War dropped 88,500 tons of bombs, more than fell on Japan in the last six weeks of World War II. Even then, the U.S.-led coalition forces needed a massive land attack into southern Iraq to obtain not an unconditional surrender but a limited capitulation.

Pummeling an adversary from the air is a risky strategy and historically has brought checkered results – often hardening an enemy's resolve or triggering a backlash of public opinion.

Developments by the U.S. military in the past eight years – better intelligence gathering, better penetrating bombs that can reach deep into reinforced bunkers, better precision bombing capabilities on Navy aircraft in particular – are no guarantee against unintended civilian casualties. In mid-February 1991, the deaths of more than 200 Iraqis in a bunker outside Baghdad – their charred corpses seen on television around the world – effectively ended the bombing campaign against targets in the Iraqi capital.

Clinton's political perils at home mean that his ability to rally and sustain support for an extended attack is limited. "The situation is so bizarre that one hesitates to know where to begin," said Eliot A. Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University strategic studies expert who extensively studied the Gulf War air campaign. "I think the main thing is that the coalition is pretty fragile. Once you take some serious civilian casualties, all of a sudden people start bailing out."

Effecting Saddam Hussein's ouster with air power alone has proved impossible before. The air armada that waged a 43-day campaign in 1991 totaled some 2,700 aircraft, compared with 201 U.S. planes currently in the gulf region, supplemented by a dozen British bombers. The U.S. military contingent of 24,000 troops now fighting Iraq – mostly from ships – pales next to nearly 700,000 troops massed by the American military alone in the Gulf War.

Six aircraft carrier battle groups fought Iraq in 1991; one is in the region now, with another due to arrive this weekend. Some three dozen allies joined the U.S.-led expedition in 1991; this time, notwithstanding logistical and moral support from a number of Arab states, only Britain has put its forces in harm's way.

The disparity in forces between 1991 and 1998 highlights other significant differences between the circumstances of Gulf War I and Gulf War II.

In 1991, a large, well-armed Iraqi army occupied Kuwait, and allied forces were sized for the task of ousting it and preventing a further incursion into Saudi Arabia; of more than 48,000 bomb-dropping sorties by allied planes, about three-fourths were against Iraqi ground forces. Such conventional targets – hammered repeatedly by B-52s dropping unguided "dumb bombs" – are not likely to be the focus of U.S. airstrikes this time, nor would hundreds of sorties be devoted to attacking rail yards, power stations, bridges, air bases and other targets attacked repeatedly in 1991.

Rather, the current "target set" likely will emphasize leadership targets and facilities used in the development of weapons of mass destruction, with U.S. planners benefiting immensely from seven years of intelligence gathered by U.N. weapons inspectors and information disgorged by highly placed Iraqi defectors. One analyst familiar with U.S. planning estimated yesterday that potential nuclear, biological and chemical weapons targets now exceed 200, including dairies, breweries, pharmaceutical plants and other facilities that could have a legitimate civilian purpose as well as military potential. Forty-three such targets were hit during the Gulf War.

"The biggest difference between then and now is, the Iraqis are much, much weaker and we know much, much more," Cohen said. "That doesn't mean we'll be successful."

Downed U.S. air crews are another potential pitfall, an issue in every conflict since the Vietnam War. Thirty-five allied planes were shot down during the Gulf War in 1991; of the 64 crewmen who went down with those planes, only four were plucked to safety by combat search-and-rescue teams.

Several analysts and former U.S. officials said yesterday they hoped Clinton will be bold now that the attack has begun.

"One of the target sets needs to be the forces that Saddam depends on," said Richard Haass, a former Bush administration senior adviser who now directs foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "So, in addition to any facilities associated with biological and other weapons of mass destruction, we should go after the Republican Guard and the security services and the symbols of Saddam's power."

Kenneth M. Pollack, senior fellow for Middle East and military affairs at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies, agreed that the United States should hit targets that threaten Saddam Hussein's "control over Iraq – that's what matters to him."

But Pollack said he doubted such strikes would topple the Iraqi leader, despite ample evidence that "there are some funky things going on with his family that indicate he might be vulnerable."

An air campaign's limitations were perhaps most graphically delineated by Gen. Colin L. Powell when the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate in December 1990:

"Many experts, amateurs and others in this town believe that [military success] can be accomplished by such things as surgical airstrikes or perhaps sustained airstrikes. And there are a variety of other nice, tidy, alleged low-cost, incremental, may-work options that are floated around with great regularity all over this town. One can hunker down, one can dig in, one can disperse to try to ride out such a single-dimension attack. Such strategies are designed to hope to win; they are not designed to win."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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