Monday, March 31, 2003

Wobblers and squabblers

While the action in the Gulf proceeds at a much slower pace than expected, the real fighting is the in-fighting.

In Britain, the self-appointed Wobbler-in-Chief is Robin Cook. The former foreign secretary wrote an article for the Sunday Mirror called 'Bring our lads home'. In it, he states, 'I just hope those who expected a quick victory are proved right. I have already had my fill of this bloody and unnecessary war. I want our troops home and I want them home before more of them are killed.' (1)

Cook's article certainly put noses out of joint among his erstwhile Cabinet colleagues. David Blunkett put the boot in during an interview with David Frost. 'Robin resigned with great dignity, putting his argument with great force. But itís hard to retain that dignity or force if you advocate capitulation after just ten days...We have to back those who are in conflict in bringing down Saddam Hussein and we have to ask everyone to answer the question: "Who do you wish to win?"' (2)

Cook's response was as wobbly as his article. 'I am not in favour of abandoning the battlefield and that is not my position. There can be no question at this stage of letting Saddam off the hook,' he said. 'I wasnít in favour of starting this war, but having started this war, itís important to win it. The worst possible outcome will be one which left Saddam there.' (3) In other words, he would prefer it if the Iraqis would just do the decent thing and surrender now.

While Cook's article was unwelcome to the British government, most of his piece was actually spent blaming Donald Rumsfeld for the mess. Blaming Rumsfeld seems to be all the rage at the moment, especially in US government circles. The defense secretary spent the weekend fending off criticism of his battle plan: that it was over-optimistic about Iraqi support for an invasion; has become over-stretched on the road to Baghdad; and that war was started with insufficient troops.

Whether any of this is legitimate criticism is beside the point. What is remarkable is the way in which the squabbles within the US administration have been aired in public. The fact that there are differences of opinion in government is not new. But in the past, the attitude would have been 'not in front of the children'. Or more to the point, 'not in front of the enemy'.

For example, having been criticised for trying and failing to win a second UN resolution, the supporters of Colin Powell have been only too happy to exploit the current difficulties to score points against Rumsfeld, vice-president Dick Cheney and deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The Washington Post quotes one former Republican appointee as looking at 'whether this president has learned something from this bum advice he has been getting.' (4)

Meanwhile, the current issue of the New Yorker suggests that Rumsfeld not only interfered with military planning but essentially threw out the existing basis of military strategy in favour of a new philosophy based on smaller forces using high-tech equipment. (5)

Rumsfeld has reacted to criticism of his interference by claiming he had no hand in military planning at all. 'It's been described as an excellent plan. I'd be delighted to take credit for it, but wouldn't be fair, because it's a product that is essentially General Franks's, but it is certainly the result of a lot of thought from a lot of very fine military planners.' Or, to put in another way, 'it's not my fault'. (6)

These squabbles have the potential to have military consequences. The one slim possibility for an Iraqi victory in this conflict is that the opposition give up and go home when the pressure gets too much. On any objective analysis, there should be no way that the Iraqis could beat the US and UK forces. But it is too soon to rule out the possibility of the 'coalition' beating themselves.

(1) Bring our lads home, Sunday Mirror, 30 March 2003
(2) Cook flayed as Blunkett asks: Who do you want to win?, Scotsman, 31 March 2003
(3) Cook flayed as Blunkett asks: Who do you want to win?, Scotsman, 31 March 2003
(4) , Washington Post, 31 March 2003
(5) Offense and defense, New Yorker, 31 March 2003
(6) Rumsfeld defends war planning, New York Times, 31 March 2003

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