President Bush has accused Saddam Hussein of being uninterested in a peaceful solution to the Persian Gulf crises. He told Turkish President Turgut Ozal that the Iraqi leader does not believe that he, Bush, has the will or the support of the American people to launch military action, particularly if Saddam makes some conciliatory move.
It is, of course, possible that Saddam is bluffing and has no intention of finding himself in general hostilities with the United States and those committed to the military support of forcing Iraqi compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions. But how certain can we be that he is bluffing? Is there another possible way to read his mind?
After eight years of frustration and tactical defeats in his war with Iran, Saddam called a temporary halt to military operations and conducted a full review of Iraq's military policy, strategy and tactics in that war. As a result of that review he put his country into full mobilization, replaced his top generals, and revised his strategy and his tactics. Within eight months, his reorganized forces destroyed the forces of Iran. Of Iran's 5,000 tanks, the Iraqis destroyed 4,500. Iranian casualties amounted to 800,000 men. Iran was forced to sue for a cease-fire.
Is it not possible that Saddam sees Bush as committed not only to add air attack to the current U.S. naval blockade of Iraq's oil exports, but also sees the president as committed to use U.S. and allied ground forces in an attempt to oust Iraqi ground forces from Kuwait, in particular from Kuwait City and its port? If Iraq's battle-hardened forces were to have the enormous advantages of being dug-in in prepared positions and of being on the defensive, can he not have confidence that they could hold their own against U.S. and allied forces traversing more than 100 kilometers of desert for the attack?
Even if the Americans must be conceded to have the ability to achieve superiority in the air, can air superiority be decisive against dug-in tanks and trained infantry? Couldn't Saddam Hussein be confident that his forces could not be winkled-out one by one with truly unacceptable American casualties? And isn't his doubt justified that American public opinion would question the president's judgment in putting himself into a position where he had no option but to commit his ground forces to such improvident offensive action?
Why was such a commitment made? Was it because the U.S. Army, in order to enhance its prestige as being a necessary part of joint offensive action in the Gulf at a time of impending budget cuts, did not wish to see the Navy -- perhaps eventually augmented by selective air attack but without active participation of the Army -- progressively squeeze Iraq into full compliance with the U.N. resolutions?
In sum, shouldn't the president now capitalize on Saddam's release of the hostages by switching his tactics to the more certain and prudent approach of giving the Navy and the Air Force time progressively to squeeze the Iraqi forces to the point where they would either themselves take offensive action against wholly unfavorable odds, or better still, where Iraq would decide to comply with the U.N. resolutions?
The object of strategy in a serious contest is to deny the opposition any possibility of finding a winning strategy of its own.
The writer's most recent government service was as a special adviser to the president and secretary of state on arms control in the Reagan administration.