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The Miscalculation

Serge July, Libération (Paris), March 25, 2003


The United States is waging war without an international mandate, in unfriendly solitude. Even some of the pillars of its alliances, like Turkey, have defected. The Turkish case is all the more dramatic in that it upset the American military's plans by depriving it of an important contingent of GIs, who today were supposed to be on the battlefield to the north of Baghdad.

After this diplomatic fiasco, it was hoped that the American war would be all the shorter, all the more "surgical," all the less deadly to GIs and Iraqi civilians, all the less destructive to Iraq, as is seen in the decision to ostentatiously incorporate journalists in combat units. In other words, it was supposed to be a large-scale police operation designed to arrest a small number of people linked to the dictatorship, not a war of annihilation on large Iraqi cities.

This war, unlike the 1991 war, was based on a political calculation. Military pressure was supposed to provoke the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. This was the scenario the American leaders dreamed about: a house-to-house battle for control of Baghdad, politically fatal in the Western and Arab worlds, was not anticipated.

This strategic vision is in trouble after the first five days of the war. The manipulation of the media is certainly intense, but given what American expectations were, what they're not showing us -- and what Gen. Franks's headquarters would like very much to have us see -- must not exist.

We are not seeing refugees on the roads, fleeing the combat zone, as in 1991. The camps established on the frontiers are empty. There is even something of a movement in the opposite direction in progress: more than 5000 Iraqis living in Jordan have returned to Iraq since the beginning of hostilities.

Surrenders have been very few. On the fifth day of the war, the Anglo-American armies have, according to Gen. Franks, taken 3000 prisoners. In 1991, the ground campaign only lasted four days, but tens of thousands of soldiers were taken prisoner. In those days there was a sort of renunciation in the face of the coalition armies. There's nothing of the sort taking place today. The negotiations with Iraqi officers in the big cities of the southern Iraq are not living up to expectations. Not one city is open. And the fighting is continuing. There are no images showing Iraqis celebrating the Anglo-American troops as liberators.

The American war has not, so far, caused the collapse of the dictatorship, which is still quite active, including in the South.

To the contrary, the American military full-court press, after twelve years of UN embargoes with dramatic effects, has provoked a patriotic reflex in the face of a military operation whose goals are, for the Iraqis too, unclear. It would top everything if this resistance, over time, turned Saddam Hussein into a national hero.

In addition, there is still the awful memory of the bloody repression of the 1991 uprisings, when the Shiite South, the Kurdish North, and even some regiments of the Republican Guard took up arms against Saddam's dictatorship after the rout in Kuwait. Saddam had several hundreds of thousands of people massacred after the Western forces left. This abandonment has made the population particularly mistrustful with regard to the Marines.

The nationalist reaction on the one hand and the horrific memory of the repression carried out by Saddam's cronies on the other explain the reactions of the people living in the zones through which the American army has passed. The "policing" war, the war of liberation, whose screenplay was written by the hawks in Washington, will no doubt not take place. If the war becomes simply warlike, that is, murderous, destructive, and painful, even an American military victory will in the end sound like yet another political defeat for the United States.

A specter is now haunting Washington -- the specter of being condemned to undertake the military conquest of Baghdad. It amounts to a terrible miscalculation.

Libération, le 25 mars 2003

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Chair, Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219

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Last updated: February 1, 2003