TCS Daily

Sword of Damocles Drops!

By Melana Zyla Vickers - March 21, 2003 12:00 AM

In the video of Saddam Hussein televised shortly after his bedtime hideaway was bombed Thursday, the dictator urged Iraqis to draw their swords against the U.S. But the sword that Iraqi soldiers were concerned about was the one hanging over their heads, as the U.S. threatened a massive attack.

The U.S. military's Damoclean strategy surprised just about every military observer of this war. But it was fully understandable. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had put it on Thursday: "We continue to feel that there's no need for a broader conflict if the Iraqi leaders act to save themselves."

Reports of Friday's relatively unchallenged overnight gains by U.S. and British ground troops in Southern Iraq, as well as indications that Iraq's military leaders were cowed if not negotiating surrender, suggested the Pentagon's early calculations were exactly right: The threat of a massive airpower attack, combined with the surgical strikes on leadership targets, was heavily influencing the enemy's actions.

Rumsfeld clearly believed that it was worth seeing if Iraq's military leaders could be made to see that their positions were untenable due to the massive threat hanging over them, to borrow loosely from Cicero. Or, to borrow from Sun Tzu, "One who is skilled in warfare principles subdues the enemy without doing battle, takes the enemy's walled city without attacking, and overthrows the enemy quickly without protracted warfare. His aim must be to take All-Under-Heaven intact. Therefore, weapons will not be blunted, and gains will be intact." Indeed, inducing the surrender and collapse of Saddam's regime with a minimal-damage war is the best way to protect Iraq's civilians and preserve Iraq's buildings, oilfields, and army for use by a post-Saddam democratic government.

But even though this early strategy correctly placed U.S. political aims over standard military doctrine, it could not have been employed indefinitely. Why? Because the longer a sword hangs, the greater the risks.

Among those risks was harm to Iraq's natural resources and people. Already, there have been reports of the regime setting fire to oilfields, squandering that resource for the post-Saddam nation. Worse than attacking Iraq's oil fields, of course, would be an attack by Saddam's forces on the Iraqi people. Such a risk would have been be too high a price to pay for continuing the Damoclean strategy. With this in mind, it's good that U.S. ground troops have moved to secure the oilfields and liberate the population of Southern Iraq. If the U.S. intervenes more heavily, as it now seems to be doing, it can stop any other scorched-earth tactics in their tracks.

There was a psychological risk for U.S. warfighters as well. They had already been targeted by the enemy, albeit with enemy missiles that haven't hit anything. If genuine harm were inflicted, to respond with pulled punches would be sure to lower morale.

The most overrated risk of the Damoclean strategy was the loss strategic surprise. The U.S. military's overwhelming power - the precision of its bombs and the sheer mass of the "shock and awe" attack that it is now unleashing - isn't eroded much by the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime expects it. And besides, the U.S. still has tactical surprise: The Iraqi regime does not know where individual weapons and pilots will strike, how heavily, nor at what time they'll do so.

Put simply, in the near term, the minimal risks of the Damoclean strategy were far outweighed by the benefits that would have come from having disarmed and ousted Saddam's regime with minimal violence, death, and destruction. But that near term has passed, and Americans now must expect that the regime will be shocked and awed into submission.

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