Handicapping Military Is Order of the Day; Maureen Is Feasting

During the heady opening days, the coalition military effort in Iraq inspired a thunderous scramble among military officers, theorists and analysts to claim authorship of the planning and underlying strategic doctrine. But the clamor heard this week in military, academic and journalistic circles was very different: It was more like the panic of a collection of pikers who’ve seen their horse break speedily from the gate only to stumble at the first turn. The once-swift coalition forces were momentarily staggered by the devious viciousness of the Saddamites; and, terrified that the tip they’d been given on the sure thing called Iraqi Freedom was in fact a bum steer, nearly all of this U.S. Army of Experts (for the most part retired, usually with good reason) have now stormed back to the betting windows, trying vainly to see if they can’t get at least some of their money refunded before what they fear will be an ugly finish. (Among the other entries in the race: Global Alienation, Future Conflict and that dark horse, Lost Election. As you may have guessed, Iraqi Freedom-by Afghan Liberation, out of Defense Reform-was trained by none other than Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld.)

Gambling regulations in this country don’t allow for mid-race misgivings: The pikers have made their choice, and though some of them are making a great show of publicly tearing up their betting slips, they would perhaps do better to still their voices (and their pens) and sweat out the whole length of the race.

Even the hyperbolic performer-journalists riding with America’s forward units through the Iraqi desert would be hard-pressed to find an adjective to describe the speed with which second-guessing has become America’s new national pastime-no surprise, given that we’re in the second stage of a military campaign, a notoriously difficult and nerve-testing time. But because this is an unprecedentedly public war, the second-guessing (and also the ongoing, indeed endless, noncontextual video images of tragedy, violence and loss) adds a very dangerous dimension. It gives the whole world the impression of a conquering power whose political, military and intellectual leaders will turn on each other at the first sign of stress; it saps the vital energies of those men and women who are actually in charge of the campaign, officers who must now waste time defending its high-risk/high-reward concept; and, worst of all, it may have actually stretched the famous “operational pause” in coalition momentum-the stumble at the first turn.

The global community of kibbitzers needs to pin the blame on somebody, and the culprit of choice is Donald Rumsfeld-not because he is micromanaging the campaign to the extent claimed by esteemed military analysts such as The New York Times ‘ resident batty aunt, Maureen Dowd (who, in her March 26 column, opined that the advance had been slowed because coalition air strikes failed to knock out Iraqi TV), but rather because Mr. Rumsfeld has aroused the enmity of many Pentagon and C.I.A. officials, along with a host of their ex-colleagues who are now paid media consultants. The credibility of these handicappers has of late been threatened, and now they’re working overtime to save their jobs. The first criticism, already repeated so many times it has become an old saw of sorts, is that from the beginning, Mr. Rumsfeld didn’t assign enough military force to Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Insufficient oats and shoddy tack, you could say.) Conveniently ignoring the fact that before the campaign began, many of their own number were whining about the possibility that there would not be enough spare American power available to deal with North Korea should Kim Jong Il decide to capitalize on America’s focus on the Iraqi contest, these sages now whine that Mr. Rumsfeld did not pay sufficient attention to recently (and magically) revealed “intelligence” that supposedly predicted the use of terror tactics by Saddam Hussein’s most despicable followers-tactics that would have to be met with, yes, “overwhelming force.”

It is also true that so far as many military bureaucrats and journalists are concerned, Mr. Rumsfeld is just a big damned know-it-all, and it would be fun to see him take a fall.

The Defense Secretary’s combative attitude toward the press in general-and specifically toward the highly coifed but (with several notable exceptions)intellectuallybereft Pentagon press corps-has left him without the kind of protection from the media that, for example, certain reporters at The Washington Post repeatedly offer C.I.A. director George Tenet (the man who squandered tactical surprise for the sake of a failed “decapitation” strike), or that Ms. Dowd’s fellow New York Times columnists often extend to Secretary of State Colin Powell, architect of the doctrine of … no, wait, that was his last job. We’re still waiting for a diplomatic doctrine from Mr. Powell and the Bush administration; and with anger throughout the Muslim world raging, a lot of innocent American tourists and foreign-service officers-to say nothing of citizens at home-may well die waiting for it.

No matter , say the pikers back at the track, the fellas at the windows won’t give us our money back, and you, Mr. Rumsfeld, you trained the damned nag-and then told us it couldn’t lose-so you’re the one who’s going to restore our cash and our reputations. We knew all along that horse couldn’t run, and look at him now: He’s going into the backstretch and he’s not four lengths ahead anymore, he’s just bunched up with the leaders. It’s a disaster. What do we care if Road Map for Mideast Peace was scratched, or if Win the War Before It Starts tripped at the gate-we didn’t bet on them, did we? Hell, we barely even knew they were slated to run. You told us that Iraqi Freedom was going to make that great steed, Dad’s Gulf War, look like an Army mule, and we went out in public and said we thought so, too. Well, it ain’t so, and we’re not taking the fall, you bum.

Conceits aside, let’s be fair: Among Mr. Rumsfeld’s less constructive personal traits is a tendency to insist that his plans and his judgments are utterly sound, even in the face of contradictory evidence. In this case, the contradictory evidence is the fact that Operation Iraqi Freedom did hit a snag this week: a more complex system of terror and blackmail on the part of Saddam Hussein’s most loyal tribal followers and operatives than anyone could have guessed at. Yet there’s no shame in having been thrown by the sight of American servicemen and women captured, berated, perhaps tortured (the implements were on hand), maybe even executed and dismembered. When fedayeen hold children in front of them as they fire on coalition troops, or when regular Iraqi troops wear civilian clothes (sometimes women’s clothes) and hoist white flags in order to get close enough to kill, a pause seems an appropriate response-if only to devise rules of engagement and combat tactics to counter a style of fighting that would have shamed the Ottoman Turks at their nadir.

With their denials, Mr. Rumsfeld, General Franks and the other commanders in the field-with the notable exception of Army Lt. Gen. William Wallace, who allowed his doubts about the campaign and the resistance it had encountered to be overheard by journalistic embeds-only made “the pause” seem more ominous.

Interviewed by embeds, grunts at the front-though they allowed that they weren’t getting the full complement of rations-wondered why they weren’t still barreling northward. Yes, they said, the enemy was surprisingly persistent and vicious; and yes, they said, they were disturbed when they participated in or heard of the deaths of innocent civilians who had either been used as or mistaken for human shields. But they were nonetheless ready to go. The Air Force had the Republican Guard pinned down in their entrenchments well outside Baghdad; if the planes could keep them there, the foot soldiers and tankers sensed, they could insert themselves between those outer positions and the capital with the same dramatic speed and decisiveness that had put them 50 miles from the city in just four days. Using quickness, maneuver and daring, they could draw their own perimeter inside Saddam’s infamous “red line.”

But they were unaware, those eager troops, of the political and editorial firestorm that had been lit, first by the pause, second by the riotous antiwar demonstrations that were erupting-throughout the Muslim world and in non-Muslim countries as well-because of numerous photo images (some from Western embeds) of civilian casualties and deaths. The strong probability that many of those deaths were the handiwork of the Saddamite regime was, of course, buried by the Islamic press. The coalition is killing innocent Iraqis, sources such as Al Jazeera quietly insisted; and they found subtle parrots in European organs, among them the B.B.C., which began to refer to murderers like the fedayeen as “the forces of resistance” in order to appeal (according to its own executives) to the antiwar segment of the British public.

The pause evolved, as such pauses will, into a creeping paralysis, a variety of political panic so acute that it led to that most dangerous of outcomes for the American forces: the return of linear strategy. Suddenly, the operation’s original goals-to get to Baghdad as quickly as possible, to isolate Saddam from his troops and supporters, to seal the city off (leaving avenues of escape for civilians who wished to try, and letting the Iraqi security forces in the city reveal their tactic of slaughtering escapees on international television)-were all put on a back burner. Talk of bringing units level and stabilizing the front began to be heard: The ghost of Dwight Eisenhower (the supreme commander who blocked a deep, rapid Allied thrust into Germany in the fall of 1944 because of political and supply anxieties, thus prolonging the war in Europe for as many as six or seven months) had appeared amid the forest of flat-screen teleprompters in Doha to haunt Central Command and pour cautious poison into every ear.

Mr. Rumsfeld and General Franks were quite correct when they told the public that the coalition troops had never stopped fighting, never stopped capturing and killing Iraqis, and never stopped taking important positions; but there was no mistaking that the lunge for the throat at Baghdad had been delayed, nervously put off as a result of public reaction to irresponsible, non-contextual television images, as well as by deep, even harrowing, political concerns: After all, the political future of the President rests on the outcome of this war. And the President has every intention of securing victory-even if, in the meantime, the global and regional prestige of the United States deteriorates to an all-time low. (The Secretary of State admits he will make no attempt to mend fences-there will be no meeting, say, with the new Palestinian prime minister-while conflict rages. But he has, of course, traveled to a country that has betrayed us: Turkey.)

And if indictment by the press and by foreign “allies” such as the Saudis leads the American public to blame Secretary Rumsfeld-well, what can Mr. Powell, Mr. Tenet or Mr. Bush do about it? After all (to return to the original metaphor), it was Mr. Rumsfeld who trained Iraqi Freedom, wasn’t it? The others are merely the animal’s owners: They liked his early speed, certainly, but they won’t be crushed if he shows rather than wins. So long as he finishes in the money, as Dick Cheney might say, that’s all that counts. If Global Alienation takes first, and Future Conflict places, not a problem-the little colt just has to come in ahead of the dreaded spoiler, Lost Election.

The terrified administration bigwigs up in the grandstand boxes ought to remember one thing that’s apparent to anyone viewing the race from the rail: The horses have only just entered the backstretch, disappearing behind the scoreboard as they go. Plenty of unpredictable jockeying goes on in that obscured part of the track; away from the anxious eyes of his owners, Iraqi Freedom may find again the stride that gave him the burst from the gate.

So, a word to the wise: Keep those scapegoating manifestos and those political and military eulogies for Mr. Rumsfeld hidden for now. And all you nervous onlookers who bet on the supposedly undersized horse that is this invasion, don’t go tearing up your slips just yet. In a matter of hours, the rumbling field will reappear, heading into the final turn; then we’ll see if this animal’s closing surge is a match for his early speed.

Caleb Carr’s, The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians, ( Random House ) has been published in an updated and expanded version.