A FALSE calm has descended on the nation. There is a belief that war can be averted in the Middle East and a sense that the United States and other nations will find a diplomatic solution to the impasse.
But this impression is false. War is coming in the Persian Gulf. The only questions are when it will start, how bloody it will be and how long it will last. It is inevitable that President Bush will order American soldiers to attack Iraq.
Two developments support this conclusion. First, the American force being assembled in the gulf far exceeds the capability needed to deter an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia and seems designed to give Bush the option of mounting an offensive operation. The large army deployed in the Saudi desert, the B-52s at Diego Garcia and the Stealth fighter in Turkey, the four carrier battle groups stationed in the area and the battleships and cruisers -- all provide the means for a crushing air strike against Iraqi military forces and installations and for a massive ground assault against Iraqi occupation troops in Kuwait.
Second, Bush will be under increasing political pressure to achieve a clear victory in the gulf, one that leaves Saddam dead or deposed and his military capability in ruins. Since Saddam is unlikely to agree to these terms voluntarily, there can be no outcome other than war to the contest of wills between him and Bush.
This is not to suggest that a negotiated settlement is impossible. It is possible -- and under favorable conditions to the United States. But it is doubtful that Bush will make the effort to seek one that allows Saddam to escape total humiliation. If Bush agrees to a compromise outcome that leaves Saddam in possession of his army and his rule, it will call into question the wisdom of the administration's decision to spend billions of dollars on the deployment of an offensive military force in the Middle East.
So when war comes, what will be the outcome? No one can say with certainty, since wars are notoriously unpredictable. One can point to several U.S. military actions since World War II, notably Korea and Vietnam, where the results differed from those anticipated by American planners. Nonetheless, it is a safe bet that the U.S. ultimately will win an all-out encounter with Iraq. Our weapons are superior, we are likely to have control of the air, and we can bring greater strength to bear than Iraq is capable of generating.
Many of the military and industrial plants that are apt to be targets of U.S. air strikes are located near cities or populated areas. The experiences of Libya, Panama and Grenada, where U.S. bombs and missiles often missed their intended targets, showed that the term "surgical air strike" is an oxymoron. Hence, there will be many civilian casualties if these installations are attacked, even if Western hostages are not placed at these sites.
In addition, a U.S. ground offensive is the only way that Iraqi forces can be driven militarily from Kuwait, and the struggle will produce heavy losses on both sides as American and Iraqi troops attack each other with modern weapons at their disposal. Unlike in Vietnam, Grenada and Panama, U.S. forces will be facing an army equipped with similar weapons to our own -- heavy tanks, multiple-launch rockets, "smart" anti-tank missiles and the like. Even if our weapons consistently outperform those of our adversary, American forces are likely to take many hits from Iraqi guns, rockets and missiles, especially when U.S. troops cross open desert.
The result will be thousands, even tens of thousands, of casualties in a very short time. This will occur even if the Iraqis choose not to use their vast arsenal of poison gas, an option which will become increasingly attractive to a desperate and cornered Saddam.
I truly hope that this grim scenario never comes to pass. But unless the military build-up in the Persian Gulf is halted and serious negotiations get under way, war is unavoidable. Saddam's aggression, coupled with Bush's insistence on making the United States the world's "911" emergency number in the post-Cold War era, seem destined to turn lines in the sand in the Arabian desert into lines of fire.
Michael J. Keller is coordinator of the Anne Arundel County ? chapter of Maryland SANE/FREEZE and a member of the 4 organization's Maryland and national boards.