We may find out soon whether all this talk of invading Iraq has been part of the greatest strategic deception since Eisenhower convinced Hitler the Allies were going to land at the Pas de Calais.
Rumors of war have been rife in the news media of late, and they've been contradictory. On July 5, the New York Times published a front-page story on a ground-heavy invasion plan for Iraq. On July 29, the Times had another, very different, invasion plan - this one involving a quick strike on Baghdad - on its front page.
Meanwhile, the British press has been reporting both a “rift” between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush about invading Iraq, and that Mr. Blair has presented to Parliament the case for taking part in a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The London Evening Standard and Pravda report that U.S. and British special forces already are staging in countries surrounding Iraq. A “massive assault” could be likely at short notice, said the London Observer. But unidentified congressional sources say unidentified administration officials told them there will be no invasion before next year.
Confused? That may be the point. Not to confuse you, but to confuse Saddam. If he does not know when and how we will strike, he will be less able to defend himself. And if Saddam isn't quite sure whether we will strike, his guard might slip a bit. That a lot of journalists may wind up with egg on their faces is lagniappe.
The first thing to note about the conflicting war plans is that both could be true, and neither deserved the play the Times gave them. The Times breathlessly implies these are the plans, when in all likelihood they are just a couple of dozens of contingencies prepared by midlevel military bureaucrats. The real plans, if they've been formulated, will be very closely held. It should not be difficult for the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations to find the leakers, if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld really wants them found.
The second is that there are two powerful physical constraints on the timing of an attack on Iraq. The Kosovo and Afghan wars drained our supply of JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions), the satellite guidance system that makes dumb bombs smart. It would be imprudent to initiate hostilities until the supply has been replenished.
The other constraint is weather. Saddam is all but certain to use chemical and biological weapons against U.S. troops. It's too hot in Iraq in the summer and early fall to be running around in chemical protective suits.
Instability in Saudi Arabia and instability in Iran could affect the timing and nature of war plans for Iraq. Three Saudi princes had died recently under mysterious circumstances. Canada's National Post reported July 31 what the London Observer had reported earlier, that extremists linked to al-Qaeda are plotting a coup against the Saudi royal family. The trigger for a coup attempt could be the death of Saudi King Fahd, who is wasting away in a Swiss hospital.
Instability in Iran could provide a sudden opportunity. The country is on the brink of civil war. Anti-regime protests have become more bold, and the mullahs are cracking down hard. They've had to import Muslim extremists from other lands to do much of the dirty work, because of doubts about the loyalty to the regime of large elements of the army and the police.
There is a fair possibility Iran, not Iraq, will be the next target in the war on terror. War with Iraq almost certainly will mean war with Iran. Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war in the 1980s. But for the increasingly desperate mullahs, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If we attack Iraq, Iran almost certainly will attack our shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Iran is a more consequential country than Iraq, and the greater short-term danger. The Gulf War and U.N. sanctions have slowed Iraq's nuclear weapons program. But the Iranian reactor at Bushehr may soon come on line.
The United States wouldn't attack Iran out of the blue. But U.S. intervention in support of a popular uprising could be in the cards. Iran ahead of Iraq. That would be a strategic deception to rival the phantom “First Patton Army” of World War II.