The first guesser

April 01, 2003

DONALD H. RUMSFELD is calling his critics "second-guessers," which is a fair enough description. The implication in that, though, is that Mr. Rumsfeld was the first guesser.

The question is, did he guess wrong?

On March 20, American and British troops were sent headlong into Iraq, before all of those who would be needed for the operation had arrived in the region and before anyone in the Pentagon had thought to consider the implications of Iraqi resistance. At first Mr. Rumsfeld's opponents held their fire, out of respect no doubt for the sensibilities of a nation heading into armed conflict, but by this past weekend the truce was disintegrating. The interesting thing was the identity of those opponents.

Over the winter it was the easily ignored peaceniks who were asking, "Why the rush to war?"

Now it's senior officers and the graybeards of the Republican Party.

Why, they want to know, did the United States throw troops into a country without a preliminary air campaign and without the backup forces necessary to secure the rear and keep them supplied?

When President Bush spoke to that matter a week ago, he said the goal was to make sure that Iraq's southern oil fields could be secured. When Mr. Rumsfeld, by now hearing more pointed criticism, tried to answer that question on Sunday, he too talked about securing the oil fields. (The administration has also been boasting about the way it has seized the northern oil fields, by the way.)

Mr. Rumsfeld said quite a few other things Sunday, as well, in his usual hard-to-parse manner. The reason the United States chose not to launch a textbook military operation in Iraq, he said, was that all that dithering in the United Nations deprived America of "strategic surprise."

It's difficult to figure out how a strategic surprise could have been pulled off in any case, given the reality of a military build-up, but Mr. Rumsfeld wants to blame those nattering diplomats. Nobody, by the way, worried about strategic surprise in the first Persian Gulf war, but they did worry about getting 500,000 troops in place before trying to evict the Iraqi army from the Connecticut-sized country of Kuwait.

Mr. Rumsfeld suggested that a slow crescendo before an invasion would have allowed Saddam Hussein to do terrible things - which is not a bad point. But it gets back to the question now being asked by generals and Reagan administration veterans: Why the rush to war? Why not get ready first?

A month or two ago, the Pentagon kept talking about the limited time available because of the broiling Iraqi weather from April onward. The war had to be launched and won pronto. Now that things are stickier, no one's talking about the weather.

Instead, the defense chief says he wanted a "tactical surprise," because that was the only kind of surprise still available to him. So American and British troops were sent dashing across the desert, and they got to those vital oil fields on the first day. But they didn't get around to supplying the nearby city of Umm Qasr with fresh water until yesterday. That sort of priority will lead to some more second-guessing down the road - by the Iraqi people Mr. Rumsfeld is so determined to liberate.

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