- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Take a good look at the Middle East. One way or the other, the picture there is going to change more significantly than it has done since the 1970s. Already, the debate has started to focus on what the future region will look like. Optimists in the administration hope that a post-Saddam Iraq will, after a relatively brief and bloodless transition, emerge as a democratic state starting a domino effect of Arab democracy. Cynics not all in France or the State Department see this as naive, and that ever since the days of Babylon, Persians and Medes, there are no successful exit strategies other than death or headlong flight from the ever-shifting sands of Middle East power politics.
Before this brave new world or fool's paradise is achieved, there will likely first be a war. While its details have appeared in print for months, this potential war remains largely a "black box" to policy-makers and commentators alike; they provide the inputs and will look at the outputs from war, but they remain largely aloof from how one gets from one to the other. That is what the military is for. The military, of course, knows that, however good they are, their ability to predict what will happen in a war is highly limited. Predicting the outcome of wars is magnitudes more difficult than predicting the outcome of football games. In a war with Iraq, we will win. Beating the spread remains an issue.
What will happen in a war? No one doubts the U.S.' ability to defeat Iraq and destroy its capability to use ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (though perhaps not before they are used). The scale of the operation and of the geographic area is large enough, and Saddam evil enough, to prevent a relatively quick victory on the model of Kosovo in 1999 or Afghanistan in 2001. Even if much of the Iraqi military surrenders or has no desire to fight, modern weapons are lethal enough that even a few determined men can inflict painful losses.
We have been told to expect mass self-destruction of Iraqi infrastructure and possibly preemption or retaliation with weapons of mass destruction. We can expect that U.S. forces will be goaded to every possible opportunity to kill civilians. We can expect that the U.S. action will serve as a focus for long-standing resentments and dissatisfaction on a broad range of issues throughout the Middle East. There will probably be battles that look like a bad day in Mogadishu.
The issue will be whether the United States has the will to fight the same battle every day until victory. Many victories have become defeats in retrospect, because those that earned them were unable to follow up the always-transitory advantage of battlefield success. This applies both to success in individual battles as in Mogadishu 1993 and in whole conflicts Iraq, 1991.
The term "asymmetric warfare" has been frequently applied to the U.S.-Iraq conflict, but it is nowhere more asymmetric than what is at stake to each side. To the United States, this is a limited war, with loss of life and diplomatic and political costs to be minimized. To Saddam, it is a battle for survival or, failing that, an Armageddon intended to create a legacy of never-ending war. This means he will do practically anything, while we will not and cannot. There are going to be plenty of surprises in the black box of a Middle East war. Some may be pleasant Iraqi conscripts smiling as they surrender most will not.
Yet, what comes out of the black box of war in the Middle East is dependent on what goes in. No matter how successful war with Iraq may be, issues such as the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the Palestinian issue, and the reconstruction and security of Afghanistan will affect our ability to build on any battlefield success. Declaring victory and hoping that the regional actors will take care of themselves has been tried and been found wanting as a policy option.
Historical surveys often list for readers what "flowed from" a war. But, they less often point out that these trends, movements and ideas first had to "flow into" a war. Wars may shape, strengthen or weaken, or twist them; only the most decisive start or end them. What we will get from a war with Iraq depends greatly on what we will have in terms of policies, interests, and resolution going into it.

David C. Isby is a Washington-based author and defense and foreign policy consultant.

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