Published on Thursday, April 10, 2003 by the Times/UK
What Must Be Done to Complete a Great Victory
by General Wesley Clark
Can anything be more moving than the joyous throngs swarming the streets of Baghdad? Memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the defeat of Milosevic in Belgrade flood back. Statues and images of Saddam are smashed and defiled. Liberation is at hand. Liberation — the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions. Already the scent of victory is in the air. Yet a bit more work and some careful reckoning need to be done before we take our triumph.
Then there’s the matter of returning order and security. The looting has to be stopped. The institutions of order have been shattered. And there are scant few American and British forces to maintain order, resolve disputes and prevent the kind of revenge killings that always mark the fall of autocratic regimes. The interim US commander must quickly deliver humanitarian relief and re-establish government for a country of 24 million people the size of California. Already, the acrimony has begun between the Iraqi exile groups, the US and Britain, and local people.
Still, the immediate tasks at hand in Iraq cannot obscure the significance of the moment. The regime seems to have collapsed — the primary military objective — and with that accomplished, the defense ministers and generals, soldiers and airmen should take pride. American and Brits, working together, produced a lean plan, using only about a third of the ground combat power of the Gulf War. If the alternative to attacking in March with the equivalent of four divisions was to wait until late April to attack with five, they certainly made the right call.
Everyone who has ever served knows that battles are won at the bottom — by the men and women looking through the sights, pulling the triggers, loading the cannon and fixing the planes. The generals can lose battles, and they can set the conditions for success — but they can’t win. That’s done by the troops alone. And nothing could have been more revealing than those armored fights in which a handful of US tanks wiped out a score of opposing Iraqi armored vehicles, again and again, and usually without suffering any losses, while in the south, the British troops worked their way through the suburbs of Basra with skills born of sound training and firm discipline, minimizing friendly casualties, civilian losses and destruction.
It’s to the men and women who fought it out on the arid highways, teeming city streets and crowded skies that we owe the greatest gratitude. All volunteers, they risked their lives as free men and women, because they believed in their countries and answered their calls. They left families and friends behind for a mission uncertain. They didn’t do it for the glory or the pittance of combat pay. Sadly, some won’t return — and they, most of all, need to be honored and remembered.
As for the diplomacy, the best that can be said is that strong convictions often carry a high price. Despite the virtually tireless energy of their Foreign Offices, Britain and the US have probably never been so isolated in recent times. Diplomacy got us into this campaign but didn’t pull together the kind of unity of purpose that marked the first Gulf War. Relationships, institutions and issues have virtually all been mortgaged to success in changing the regime in Baghdad. And in the Islamic world the war has been seen in a far different light than in the US and Britain. Much of the world saw this as a war of aggression. They were stunned by the implacable determination to use force, as well as by the sudden and lopsided outcome.
Now the bills must be paid, amid the hostile image created in many areas by the allied action. Surely the balm of military success will impact on the diplomacy to come — effective power so clearly displayed always shocks and stuns. Many Gulf states will hustle to praise their liberation from a sense of insecurity they were previously loath even to express. Egypt and Saudi Arabia will move slightly but perceptibly towards Western standards of human rights.
Germany has already swung round from opposition to the war to approval. France will look for a way to bridge the chasm of understanding that has ripped at the EU. Russia will have to craft a new way forward, detouring away, at least temporarily, from the reflexive anti-Americanism which infects the power ministries. And North Korea will shudder, for it has seen on display an even more awesome display of power than it anticipated, and yet it will remain resolute in seeking leverage to assure its own regime’s survival. And what it produces, it sells.
The real questions revolve around two issues: the War on Terror and the Arab-Israeli dispute. And these questions are still quite open. Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and others will strive to mobilize their recruiting to offset the Arab defeat in Baghdad. Whether they will succeed depends partly on whether what seems to be an intense surge of joy travels uncontaminated elsewhere in the Arab world. And it also depends on the dexterity of the occupation effort. This could emerge as a lasting humiliation of Iraq or a bridge of understanding between Islam and the West.
But the operation in Iraq will also serve as a launching pad for further diplomatic overtures, pressures and even military actions against others in the region who have supported terrorism and garnered weapons of mass destruction. Don’t look for stability as a Western goal. Governments in Syria and Iran will be put on notice — indeed, may have been already — that they are “next” if they fail to comply with Washington’s concerns.
And there will be more jostling over the substance and timing of new peace initiatives for Israel and the Palestinians. Whatever the brief prewar announcement about the “road map”, this issue is far from settled in Washington, and is unlikely to achieve any real momentum until the threats to Israel’s northern borders are resolved. And that is an added pressure to lean on Bashir Assad and the ayatollahs in Iran.
As for the political leaders themselves, President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt. And especially Mr Blair, who skillfully managed tough internal politics, an incredibly powerful and sometimes almost irrationally resolute ally, and concerns within Europe. Their opponents, those who questioned the necessity or wisdom of the operation, are temporarily silent, but probably unconvinced. And more tough questions remain to be answered.
Is this victory? Certainly the soldiers and generals can claim success. And surely, for the Iraqis there is a new-found sense of freedom. But remember, this was all about weapons of mass destruction. They haven’t yet been found. It was to continue the struggle against terror, bring democracy to Iraq, and create change, positive change, in the Middle East. And none of that is begun, much less completed.
Let’s have those parades on the Mall and down Constitution Avenue — but don’t demobilize yet. There’s a lot yet to be done, and not only by the diplomats.
General Wesley Clark was Supreme Allied Commander Europe 1997-2000 and led Nato forces during the Kosovo campaign
Copyright 2003 Times/UK