Saddam’s Secret Weapon: Peter Arnett@work

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2003

The signs of Iraqi desperation are clear. Saddam’s regime has now deployed its most fearsome weapons: not chemical weapons, but…Peter Arnett! Or maybe he is an agent of Fox News, whose mission is to discredit NBC.

Arnett has quite a storied record of anti-American broadcasting over the years. It began during the Vietnam War. There are many examples of his anti-American slant during that conflict, but one of the best examples is his report of an anonymous U.S. officer who allegedly claimed that “we had to destroy the village to save it.” This, of course, became the foremost symbol of the meaninglessness of the war. And who can forget his infamous “baby milk” story during the first Gulf War? Most people thought that his pro-Saddam spin would do him in. They were wrong.

Not too long ago, he was fired by CNN in conjunction with the “Tailwind” story, the report he filed claiming that the United States had used sarin gas (a nerve agent) against U.S. defectors during the Vietnam War. The report was ridiculous on its face and sure enough, the story collapsed almost immediately. One would have thought that this debacle would have ended his career, but there he was again Sunday night, propagandizing on Iraqi TV on behalf of Saddam’s charnel house just as he did in 1991.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on Arnett. True, he took credit on Iraqi TV for stories that strengthened the position of the war’s opponents, but one of his main claims was merely a variation of what many in the American press were saying right here in the United States: that coalition military planners were now rewriting the strategy for the war in Iraq because of unexpectedly tough Iraqi resistance.

Until this issue arose, I had no idea how many military experts there were among those covering the war. Who would have thought that reporters would be bandying about the term “operational pause?” But there they were, repeatedly peppering Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Meyers, and CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks with questions concerning alleged revisions of the plan to deal with unexpected events, such as guerilla attacks against the coalitions supply lines running from Kuwait to Baghdad and resistance by the Fedayeen Saddam and other irregulars.

Reporters were keying off a story in the Washington Post in which Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of the Army’s Fifth Corps was quoted as saying that the war as it was unfolding was different than the one he and his subordinate commanders had “war gamed.” In conjunction with other reports claiming that Gen. Franks’s request for additional forces had been overruled by Secretary Rumsfeld, the Wallace story lent credence to rumors that there was disagreement on how to conduct the war between the Pentagon’s civilian leaders and the uniformed military.

Rumors of dissension are not new. For months, every reporter with a source in the Pentagon or Tampa was writing about competing plans for the war in Iraq. I summarized these various approaches in an editorial on August 14, 2002 (“With Eyes Wide Open“). The profusion of leaked “plans” led the Financial Times of London to editorialize on July 30, 2002 that “Never in the field of human conflict has so much war planning been revealed to so many by so few. The Bush administration seems to have a different strategy for dealing with Saddam Hussein every day of the week.”

During a Pentagon briefing the day after the apparent attempt to take out Saddam and his top lieutenants with a precision strike, a reporter remarked that the strike did not seem to be in accordance with “the plan.” Secretary Rumsfeld’s reply to the reporter was: “in fact, you don’t have the plan, and that’s not a bad thing.”

I don’t know the particulars of CENTCOM’s war plan, and neither does anyone else outside of the appropriate military staffs, but based on what has happened since the beginning of the war, the quotation from Helmuth von Moltke in my last piece, “Keep Thinking ’Main Thing’,” appears to be on target. The commander, wrote Moltke, must keep his objective in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but, on the contrary, are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.

Thus a plan is merely a starting point that must be modified as circumstances change.

As best as I can ascertain, the war plan for Iraq was designed to cause paralysis by simultaneously attacking the pillars of Saddam’s power: the Baath party, internal-security forces, and the Republican Guard. For a variety of reasons, the desired outcome — the rapid collapse of the regime — did not occur. The path to the objective had to be modified. This is not rewriting the plan but modifying elements of it “on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen.”

A campaign is a series of integrated operations designed by means of movements and combats to achieve a strategic goal within a theater of operations. In 1991, air operations preceded ground operations. This time, “shock and awe” called for the simultaneous applications of air, ground, and special operations. It was a gamble worth the risk and it did not foreclose other options.

Some pundits and reporters have argued that the force assembled for the current war not large enough. But this claim is essentially meaningless without considering “risk,” which is measured in terms of the possible costs (time and casualties) of a given course of action. It is possible to imagine a “minimum risk” force, one so large that the addition of one more unit would not appreciably affect the outcome. But based on circumstances existing on 19 March, 2003, the president and his military advisers decided that the combination of air, naval, land, and special-operations forces in theater were adequate to implement the campaign plan.

Would Gen. Franks prefer to have another heavy division or two? The answer is undoubtedly yes. This is because of the soldier’s understandable propensity to hedge against uncertainty and the likelihood that things won’t go as planned. But there would also have been risks associated with assembling such a force. Would it have been better to advance more deliberately, attempting to avoid the long supply lines associates with the dash for Baghdad? Perhaps, but such a cautious plan would have incurred risks of its own, perhaps permitting the Iraqis more time to consolidate their defenses in the south, thereby delaying the advance on Baghdad to the advantage of Saddam’s regime.

In military operations, there is something called the “culminating point of victory.” As an attacker advances, the power of the attack gradually exhausts itself. If the attacker goes beyond the culminating point, the advantage may shift to the defender. To avoid such an outcome, an attacker may resort to an “operational pause” to consolidate his position before continuing the attack. Some have suggested that this is the situation the coalition currently faces.

There is no evidence that even the land operation has reached the culminating point of the attack. In addition, any claim that there is an operational pause ignores the multifaceted nature of the coalition campaign. As ground forces consolidate their position, air operations and activity by special-operations forces take up the slack. It is doubtful that the Iraqis perceive any operational pause. No wonder they have deployed their weapon of last resort: Peter Arnett.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.