Iraq's Fabian strategy

Harry G. Summers Jr.

January 29, 1991|By Harry G. Summers Jr.

WHAT in the world is Saddam Hussein up to? That's one of the most perplexing questions of the gulf war. Why is his military hiding? Why has he refused combat in the air? Is hunkering down an admission of defeat, or a longer range strategy?

The precedent for what Hussein is doing lies in antiquity, for apparently he has adopted a "Fabian" strategy, first laid out some 2,200 Harry G.Summers Jr.years ago by Roman dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus.

In the spring of 217 B.C., in the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the Roman army fell into a trap laid by Hannibal on the banks of Lake Trasimene north of Rome. In the face of that emergency, Fabius was elected dictator and granted emergency powers. But instead of attacking the Carthaginians, he chose to avoid combat and pursue a strategy of exhaustion. Nicknamed "Cunctator" (delayer), Fabius warned against getting involved in a battle where Hannibal's cavalry strength could be brought to bear.

Since Hannibal had no siege train of supplies and had to keep on the move to avoid exhausting local forage, the Fabian strategy worked, within limits. When it was abandoned the next year, and the Carthaginian army attacked head on at Cannae near the Adriatic, west of Naples, the Roman legions were routed. Some 60,000 were killed, another 10,000 captured, and only 10,000 escaped. The Romans reverted to Fabius' strategy of evasion and delay and achieved more success.

This is more than just ancient history. In the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington pursued just such a strategy against the British. Knowing he was outnumbered, Washington refused combat whenever he was able and wore the British down in an eight-year campaign of exhaustion.

An eight-year campaign of exhaustion was precisely what Hussein waged against Iran from 1980 to 1988. Greatly outnumbered on the ground, he fought the vast majority of his battles on the tactical defensive, letting Iran's Revolutionary Guards wear themselves down in repeated attacks on his fortified positions. As the war progressed, Iran's U.S.-supplied high-tech weapons and aircraft gradually ran out of spare parts and became ineffective.

It appears he is trying the same strategy again. Except for his Scud missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia, he has taken virtually no offensive action in the war. By and large, his air force has also avoided action, even fleeing at the approach of allied aircraft. Except for some minor probes, his ground forces have been inactive. As in his earlier war with Iran, Hussein appears to be trying to goad his opponents into a ground attack against his entrenchments, hoping to inflict such high casualties that public support for the war would be undermined.

Can such a "Fabian" defensive strategy work? Like most questions about war, the answer depends on the situation and the course of events. The reason it worked for Washington in the American Revolutionary War and for Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war was that, in both cases, time was on the side of the defenders.

Thus the fundamental question today is, "On whose side is time in the Persian Gulf?" Hussein evidently thinks it is on his side. Is he correct, or is that just the latest in his series of miscalculations?

Start with political considerations. Hussein must have pinned his hopes on the dissolution of the coalition arrayed against him. He must have been convinced that his call for a jihad would have inflamed the Muslim masses and undermined the governments of the Arab nations aligned with the coalition. He must have believed that when Israel joined the fray, pushed into action by repeated Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israeli cities, the Arab alliance would surely dissolve.

But he was wrong. The coalition endures, growing even stronger. From a political point of view, time already has run out for Hussein. He is isolated not only in the region but in the world.

Among the most significant effects of this political isolation is that it severs the flow of arms, ammunition and spare parts from his former arms suppliers. Hussein now finds himself in the same position Iran was in during the Iran-Iraq war. Just as its U.S.-supplied weapons and aircraft became just so much useless junk when the flow of spare parts was cut off, so Hussein's Soviet, Chinese and French tanks, arms and aircraft will atrophy.

Time is running out for his air force, army and navy as well. Hiding his aircraft in shelters just delays the inevitable. When they take off, AWACS surveillance radars will detect their movement and guide allied fighter aircraft in to destroy them. If they leave them in shelters, they remain neutralized. The same is true for his navy. The patrol boats and Exocet missiles are worthless if they cannot be brought in range of allied warships. But, as Hussein already has learned, to launch his boats and missiles is to lose them.

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