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Counting Heads

TRB from Washington

It’s dangerous to generalize about this war. America's attack on Iraq is moving so fast that basic assumptions about its course can flip in the course of one day. But, as of this writing, the war's conduct suggests at least one irony: This supposedly cold-blooded administration is making a remarkable, some might even say militarily dangerous, effort to spare Iraqi lives. Conservatives once attacked Bill Clinton for being too squeamish about civilian casualties. But compared with George W. Bush--at least so far--Clinton didn't even come close.

The right has long attacked the left as insufficiently concerned with national interest. Liberals, the argument goes, only support humanitarian wars untainted by America's need for security. But, if the rationale for this war is U.S. security, you'd hardly know it from listening to the Bush administration over the last few days. Consider the attack's name: "Operation Iraqi Freedom." The campaign to topple the Taliban, you'll remember, was dubbed "Operation Enduring Freedom." But that referred to American freedom, attacked on September 11, 2001. For this war, the military reportedly favored "Operation Desert Freedom," which would have harkened back to "Desert Storm." But Bush administration civilians evidently considered that too morally vague (after all, we weren't freeing the desert) and thus settled on a name that could have been cooked up by Human Rights Watch. As one writer on National Review Online recently joked, "Whatever happened to all those in-your-face, aggressive names for military ops-- the ones with words like `storm,' `sword,' `lightning,' and so on?"

In fact, the Bush administration hasn't only vowed not to make this a war against the Iraqi people; it has practically promised not to make it a war against the Iraqi military either. In his March 17 speech giving Saddam Hussein a 48-hour ultimatum, President Bush said, "It is not too late for the Iraqi military to act with honor and protect your country by permitting the peaceful entry of coalition forces" and urged "every member of the Iraqi military and intelligence services, if war comes, do not fight for a dying regime." In the months leading up to the war, the United States dropped millions of leaflets urging Iraqi soldiers to surrender and be spared. And Pentagon officials have talked openly about their desire to negotiate with Iraqi generals rather than destroy them. The clear implication is that the United States considers most of the Iraqi military a victim of Saddam's government rather than a manifestation of it.

The Bush administration's extremely narrow definition of the enemy has guided the war's conduct as well as its rhetoric. First, there was the decision to scramble war plans by going for an early knockout punch on Saddam's bunker. Sticklers for international law muttered that the Bushies were circumventing traditional prohibitions on assassinating another country's leader. But, viewed more broadly, the effort to get Saddam and sons was clearly a humanitarian decision--an attempt to spare virtually all Iraqis from conflict.

In less obvious ways, that logic continued to guide the entire first week of the war. In 1991, the United States bombed Iraq for 38 days before beginning its ground offensive; this time it bombed for one day. And the Pentagon avoided strikes against Baghdad's electrical grid, water system, bridges, and power plants in order to reduce civilian suffering. That decision has so far limited Iraqi casualties. But the decision to send U.S. Marines and infantrymen into Iraq before "preparing the battlefield" with extended air attacks also exposed American troops to greater danger. According to National Public Radio, American commanders even ordered helicopters to fly low over tanks, minimizing the chances of collateral damage but exposing them to Iraqi ground fire. In Kosovo, some liberal humanitarians charged that the Clinton administration's obsession with preventing U.S. combat deaths--it ruled out a ground war and instructed pilots to fly so high that they were impervious to Serb anti-aircraft fire--led to higher Serb and Kosovar civilian casualties. Today, the supposedly ruthless Bush administration has reversed the moral calculus. Some American troops will probably die because some Iraqis were spared.

This moral calculus has also shaped the Bush administration's decision to send ground troops straight to the Iraqi capital. The American forces surging toward Baghdad bypassed as many Iraqi units as possible and operated under orders to fire only when fired upon. Critics charge that, by not destroying Iraqi troops, the United States left its lightly armed logistical "tail" vulnerable to the kind of counterattack suffered by the 507th Maintenance Company on March 24. As Peter Feaver, director of Duke University's Triangle Institute for Security Studies, told The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks this week, "The really important thing about the [U.S. war] plan is that it has put mission accomplishment ahead of force protection." And that mission isn't only to take Baghdad; it's to minimize the killing of Iraqis along the way.

In the north, too, the Bush administration has shown surprising humanitarianism. For weeks now, cynics have assumed the United States would prioritize its strategic alliance with Turkey over its moral commitment to the Kurds and let Ankara send its troops into northern Iraq, thus sparking a humanitarian catastrophe and snuffing out hopes of Kurdish autonomy in a post Saddam Iraq. But, ever since Ankara's refusal to allow American troops to operate from Turkish soil, the Bush administration has been surprisingly outspoken on the Kurds' behalf. America's refusal to bless Ankara's incursion led Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week to delay by a crucial 24 hours the opening of Turkey's airspace to U.S. warplanes. On Sunday, President Bush said, "We're making it very clear that we expect [Turkey] not to come into northern Iraq." The Bush administration even seems to have implied that large-scale Turkish intervention will threaten U.S. foreign aid. It is too early to tell whether the Bush administration's efforts to prevent Turkey from crushing Kurdish aspirations will succeed, but, so far, the United States has made a much greater effort than most commentators expected. 

Does all this make the Bush team pure? Of course not. But it does suggest that they recognize that this war's grand moral aims--to implant democracy in the Middle East--must guide its means as well. The imperviousness to public opinion and the hypocrisy about human rights that have at times blemished this administration have so far been blessedly absent from its war in Iraq. That could all change in a heartbeat, of course. But, if it doesn't, there is at least some hope that the United States may actually win this terrifying war, not only militarily, but politically as well.

This article originally ran in the April 4, 2003, issue of the magazine.