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28 Mar 2003 00:00
Doctrine, it is said, never survives the battlefield unscathed. The strikes aimed at killing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein probably cannot be counted as a true example of that proposition, since the theory of precision weapons does lay down that they are only as good as the intelligence that provides the target, coupled with the speed with which fire is brought to bear.
But they certainly represent the first of the tests of the American and British armed forces, their governments and their doctrines of war at every level, which this conflict will bring.
Such doctrines go all the way from the smallest unit in the desert to the command staffs, and beyond them to governments pondering, as they will as soon as the violence ends, what will be the best course, whether military or non-military, in conflicts to come.
President George W Bush’s ultimatum on Monday March 17 cited the new national security strategy, first outlined in January 2002, to the effect that, in an age when weapons of mass destruction are increasingly available, waiting to act after the enemy has “struck first is not self-defence, it’s suicide’‘.
Critics have pointed out that the new doctrine blurs the distinction between pre-emption, which implies an imminent threat, and prevention, which implies more distant dangers.
The doctrine, as so far advanced, also tends to stress military rather than non-military solutions, and unilateral rather than multilateral decisions about the seriousness of threats. Although it does not neglect containment and deterrence, it pushes them down the list.
Taken to the extreme, it would seem to allow one country, the United States, to attack others at will if it deems them to represent a future rather than a present threat — and it might also encourage other countries to take pre-emptive action of the same kind in their neighbourhoods.
The Bush administration repudiates such sweeping interpretations and seems genuinely convinced that this is a big idea that justifies the war on Iraq and will be a key to right action for years to come.
Much of the rest of the world disagrees, either on the general principle, or on its application to Iraq, deeming the doctrine cover for other motives. In the most immediate sense, that doctrine will be tested as it becomes clear what Iraq does possess in the way of weapons of mass destruction.
For the doctrine to be justified to any extent, there must be evidence that Iraq does have substantial stocks, and, equally important, that evidence must not take the form either of the effective use of such weapons against our troops or
their transfer to terrorists who could use them in our home countries.
The stocks, and any information on serious continuing weapons programmes, would show a degree of real threat, which would go some way to justifying the doctrine in principle. Even if the stocks are very substantial, that would not prove,
of course, that the Iraqi regime planned to use them or could not have been deterred by means short of war. But it might nevertheless change the minds of many people across the world.
The completion of the military campaign without such weapons, assuming they exist in some quantity, having been effectively used or transferred, would justify the doctrine at the level of execution. It would, in other words, show that the US had developed the military means to deal with an enemy, or at least this particular enemy, without its action leading to disaster rather than disarmament.
To develop the capacity to paralyse an enemy and the speed and flexibility to get in sufficiently close to inhibit the use of weapons of mass destruction has been a preoccupation of reformers inside and outside the American services throughout the 1990s.
Major General Robert Scales, author of Yellow Smoke, a new book on such requirements, stresses the weight of firepower, and the speed and especially the cunning of manoeuvre. The British military theorist of the 1930s, Basil Liddell Hart, who advocated the “indirect approach’‘, slicing through the enemy to cut up his nervous system, is an inspiration for such officers.
What Scales calls the “new American style of war’’ has to be both fast and indirect, for the consequences otherwise could be horrendous.
Such wars now demand not just victory but the right kind of victory. The forces entering Iraq have some of these qualities, but far from all
“They are halfway between the dinosaurs and the next stage of evolution,’’ according to a senior army officer involved in joint strategic planning. That they will win is not in doubt, but whether they are sufficiently evolved to do the job in the clever way men like Scales recommend is another matter.
The broadest test of the doctrine will come after the war. Even assuming that it has passed the lesser tests in Iraq, the question will be whether it is useable or acceptable in other situations.
Bush’s linking of Iran and North Korea with Iraq has led to fears that the US might contemplate pre-emptive wars against them. Some see an endless progression of such wars, stretching into the future, whenever the US sees, or thinks it sees, a danger of proliferation or of weapons being transferred to terrorists.
But there is a uniqueness about the Iraqi case that makes such a sequence less than automatic.
First, Iraq is ruled by a particularly evil regime and one that has defied United Nations resolutions, neither of which is true of Iran, while, with North Korea, there is an element of haplessness to an admittedly dire regime.
Second, both North Korea and Iran could soon have much more in the way of weapons of mass destruction than Iraq has, making attacks on either a far more serious proposition.
There is much to suggest that other forms of pressure would be not just preferable to a military solution, but that a military solution would be too risky for any American government, including this one, to contemplate.
That said, the Bush administration clearly hopes that victory in Iraq will make Iran and North Korea readier to bend to American concerns. Even if another effect is that such countries accelerate their nuclear weapons programmes, it need not be truly threatening, said Scales, if North Korea, for instance, was “just going to sit on them’‘.
The principles of pre-emption and prevention, in the broader and indisputably justifiable sense of dealing with threats in their early stages, were the subject of much attention during the past decade. In humanitarian intervention, in preparing for crop failures, refugee flows and natural disasters, in environmental protection, or in military planning they are hardly objectionable.
Military pre-emptive doctrine will survive Iraq, in particular if its contradictions are cleared up and if the rules for intervention are subject to genuine multilateral discussion.
But in the particular form that the Bush administration has proposed it, this may prove to be a one-war doctrine, even if that war goes very well, a doctrine tailored for Iraq and only distantly relevant to other situations. — Â
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