Along the Tracks

Monday, March 03, 2003

War start date

I’ve made two predictions (here and here) on when the war would start, along with a detailed operational description. Both were wrong. In each case, I’ve underestimated the Bush administration’s patience and its determination to drag the United Nations into the realm of responsibility. I’ll lay out my explanation first, then try a third (and hopefully, last) try at a prediction for the war’s start date:

When 1441 was passed unanimously, I was quite certain Colin Powell had achieved an “iron-clad” agreement with the waiverers, i.e. China, Russia, and, especially, France, to pass a second resolution authorizing force if, at the time of the first inspectors’ report Jan. 27, Saddam had not fully accounted for his weapons and their dismantling was well underway. I am still quite certain that was the case - more so, in fact. Powell’s complete, angry turnaround after the French-German PR offensive against war just before the Blix report. It was a betrayal of a behind-the-scenes understanding. It at the least delayed, at the most scuttled, a second resolution authorizing force. Bush and Powell have chosen to boldly push forward on the U.N. front, partly for the UK’s Tony Blair, but mostly because they really believe in a broader vision for the U.N. in the dawning century.

As I’ve written in an op-ed (currently being shopped around - any takers?), Bush is seeking to establish a new precedent in the U.N., making the Security Council a powerful tool for world order - the “new world order” his father first envisioned. A more robust Security Council would be unlikely to tie the hands of the U.S., but would provide some constraints to other large powers less concerned with world opinion at present.

In a globalized world, public opinion provides a growing restraint against the unilateral use of force - a sign of democratization, therefore a positive. For the U.S., such opinion is already effective. But for newcomers to world markets, particularly Russia and China, old interventionist ways die hard. The Bush-Powell initiative in the U.N. is to set up a process where the major powers can acquire the imprimatur of legitimacy for intervention against states bent on disrupting world order - be it by proliferation, terrorism or gross violations of human rights.

The “Iraq process” has been long and slow - 12 years in the making. This has been, perhaps, frustrating, but potentially valuable. The lack of a “rush to war,” despite claims to the contrary, sets some high hurdles for foreign interventions where the dangers are not immediate. Yet a positive Security Council vote for action against Iraq would demonstrate the final goal of correcting an international problem through the U.N. is achievable. This, in turn, would allay many concerns Russia and China may currently hold about U.N. limits to their freedom to act.

Thus, the wild card becomes France (also a reprobate interventionist, see “Ivory Coast”), which must decide whether it is better to build long-term world stability through the U.N. process or exploit misinformed anti-Americanism over the short term.

Bush and Powell are betting on a French vote for U.N.-brokered stability. They believe in this new paradigm of international sanction so much, they are willing to go an incredibly long way to get it. In fact, they may believe a positive council vote which includes the “yeahs” of Russia and China, but is vetoed by France, still establishes the desired precedent, if less emphatically. But they want France badly. Interestingly, the administration’s patience with Turkey, even now, is powerful evidence that the window for an attack is at least 11 days away (count ‘em: Turkish parliament votes tomorrow; if they vote “no” again, it will take 10 days for the hardware to pass through Suez and get to Kuwait; it could be unloaded and prepped - a week-long affair - as the initial invasion gets underway).

And so, the date for action (post March 14) becomes either the day after a French vote for war (or at least an abstention) is gained - or when the military says it’s go now or wait till fall. The action of Special Forces already inside Iraq, the start of defections, the training of Iraqi nationals to be involved in the invasion, all point to the fact Bush will not put things on hold until cooler autumn weather. And military “worst case” scenarios for securing Iraqi mass destruction weapons and the oil fields is one month - the final toppling of the Ba’athists in their holdouts could take longer, but in small groupings, they do not pose the kind of risks which require thousands of troops in stifling NBC suits. The Iraqi desert really starts heating up by mid April, so that puts a start date in mid-March, at latest.

Prediction: Bush will push for the French vote right up to the absolute deadline. A major effort will start after the March 7 Blix report. The inspectors are scheduled to report again on March 14. I don’t think Bush is going to want to give a lot of time for Saddam to muddle things after that report with another ploy, like agreeing to turn over some mobile labs or anthrax barrels or something. The French will be given Saturday to think about things. The U.S. will call for a Security Council vote on Sunday, March 16. Whichever way the vote goes, military action will begin that night.

BTW - the war itself will largely follow the scenario I laid out last summer, and this is my last attempt at a predicting a start date. :-)

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