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31 March 2003

Panic in the White House

Americans sat back to enjoy a giant firework display. Then to the dismay of Bush and the Pentagon ha

By Andrew Stephen

And they thought it was going to be so easy. They really did believe it: that troops would be welcomed in Iraq, with flowers and hugs and kisses, as liberators for whom they had been waiting so long. Wars are arduous? Perilous? Dreadful? No, not American wars. Americans have the right and might to smart-bomb the smithereens out of anyone before marching in and proclaiming American-style freedom wherever they want. So sit back and enjoy the show. “It looked like the Fourth of July,” gushed one television reporter, speaking of the sky being “perfectly orange” and “last night’s show”. President Bush watched the opening fireworks with his chief of staff, Andy Card, before helicoptering off to a relaxing weekend at Camp David, a commander-in-chief totally confident of the outcome of his war.

What is amazing, given the US experiences in Vietnam, is how easily and swiftly that smug self-confidence of this administration has been shaken to high heaven. True, a black sergeant, who recently converted to Islam, turned on his comrades with hand grenades, killing one (the stress of war can be terrible); a Patriot missile battery shot down an ancient Brit Tornado (unfortunate, but these things happen in war); “friendly fire” took the lives of almost an entire Brit television crew (they shouldn’t really have been there on their own, working unilaterally). US marines are actually being killed.

But none of this was the cause of the unexpected panic in the White House and Pentagon. What gave them the jitters – big-time, as the Bushies say – was the footage put out by al-Jazeera, showing frightened and wounded US prisoners of war. CBS broadcast the film before realising what it was showing. Then the Pentagon leant furiously on the networks and news channels to suppress from the American public the images shown around the world and in the UK. They knew that film of 17 dead servicemen in Somalia in 1992 swung public opinion against US operations there.

A shaken President Bush showed his naivety over war by being genuinely outraged and shocked by the footage, returning from Camp David to denounce Iraqi mistreatment of American servicemen almost immediately. To the hawks in the administration, meanwhile, the possibility of Americans turning en masse against the war so quickly – fuelled by footage of its horrible realities – soon destroyed their complacency: “perfidy . . . treachery . . . despicable”, pronounced the Pentagon. And Americans never did get to see that footage unless they surfed the internet ( Public support of the war, none the less, slipped by four percentage points, from 74 per cent to 70, that Sunday.

The markets plunged the following day, too. Although Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, recently said that the cost of the invasion of Iraq was “not knowable”, Bush asked Congress for a war budget of $74.7bn. Poignantly and tellingly, the projected budget for the Iraqi incursion did not include the cost of bringing any troops home: $63bn was for prosecuting the war, a meagre $8bn for humanitarian aid. The words “serious strategic miscalculations” crept into last Tuesday’s Washington Post. “Stay brave, stay aware and stay with Fox,” said a young Fox News Channel anchorman, revelling in his first vicarious taste of war. But it was all in danger of unravelling fast.

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You would have thought that at least someone in the administration would have known better: the likes of Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney are good at putting on tough-guy acts but quickly become jelly when faced with the possibility of public opinion turning against them over war and the degradation of Americans. On television, Rumsfeld comes over as a tough guy who likes to quote Al Capone (true), but in the flesh he looks every bit as old as his 70 years; not long ago he had an operation on an arthritic thumb.

Rumsfeld served in the navy as an aviator, but never saw combat and certainly none of its blood and guts. Cheney, as NS readers know, was an assiduous draft-dodger while others his age were being killed in Vietnam. Bush himself was drinking with the lads during Vietnam, serving in the Texas Air National Guard – when he could be bothered to turn up for duty. Ultra-hawks such as Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s creepy deputy and advocate of war, magically avoided any kind of military service. Only Colin Powell, the secretary of state, has actually been involved personally in warfare (being wounded and decorated in Vietnam) – and he has been the most cautious about the invasion of Iraq.

The class overtones are no different these days, either. The US troops in Iraq are almost entirely from what Powell calls (not disrespectfully) the “K-Mart” classes. Only one member of the Senate or House of Representatives, Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, actually has a son in the armed forces.

I feel certain that the repulsive war voyeurism of this television news channel age, encouraged by the cruelty of the likes of Rumsfeld in his press conferences, is the result of a lack of actual experience of war in the current ruling generation. President Bush I, who presided over the first Gulf war a dozen years ago, flew 58 combat missions in the Second World War and was shot down over the Pacific – all before he was 21. Of that generation, other American politicians such as Bob Dole suffered dreadful injuries at the same time. To them, war is not an abstract concept, to be enjoyed on Fox or CNN with a beer; the peculiar language of current American warfare (pre-emption, embedding of journalists, shock and awe) merely encourages the distance between vicariousness and dreadful reality.

Bush’s budget envisioned a 30-day war. We will see. In the early days of the invasion, when the aerial displays of power and might were thrilling the nation but actually proving inadequate to cover ground troops, Rumsfeld airily outlined eight basic reasons why the US was invading Iraq.

The first was to “end the regime of Saddam Hussein by striking with force on a scope and scale that makes clear to Iraqis that he and his regime are finished”.The second was to destroy biological and chemical weapons and any developing nuclear ones. However, within a week, there were gnawing doubts in Washington, not articulated but keenly felt, over whether weapons of mass destruction in significant quantities would actually be found in Iraq after all.

But Rumsfeld went on: the seventh reason was “to secure Iraq’s oilfields and resources, which belong to the Iraqi people, and which they need to develop their country after decades of neglect by the Iraqi regime”. What he did not add was that tenders have already gone out to US companies to rebuild the oil infrastructure after its presumed wrecking in the war. Among the lucky few is Halliburton, where Cheney was chief executive from 1995 until mid-2000; last Tuesday, it was awarded a fat contract. Others sniffing around are the Bechtel Group, on whose board several former Republican cabinet members have sat; and Fluor, which is tied to several former senior government intelligence and Pentagon procurement officials.

Yet within four days of the start of the bombing, members of the administration were starting to backtrack. They identified a new enemy sabotaging the war: not France this time, but Russia. Vladi-mir Putin’s government, according to the Pentagon, had given Iraq night-vision goggles, anti-tank weapons and equipment designed to confuse the American geographical positioning systems on smart bombs. Suddenly, there was just a whiff of the cold war about the briefings going on in this panic-ridden atmosphere.

Only 130 American soldiers died in the previous Gulf war; former general Barry McCaffrey, Clinton’s drug tsar, now estimates there will be 3,000 casualties this time. The Bush administration, meanwhile, is very proud of its programme to bombard Iraqis with leaflets telling them in simple pictures or language how to surrender. That, of course, is how the Vietnam war started. And we all now know what happened there: 58,202 Americans did not come back.