Tipping Encouraged

Warfare is changing. So should the antiwar movement.

Friday, March 21, 2003
9 a.m.: Pause for a moment to contemplate the wonderful transformation of warfare that seems to be unfolding before our eyes.

In the last 24 hours, we’ve all seen pictures of Iraqi soldiers surrendering without firing a shot. We’ve heard on-air eyewitness accounts of white sheets thrown over Iraqi tanks to signal soldiers’ intention not to fight. We’ve seen no reports of a highway of death or of massive bombing on the scale of the Kosovo war. The humanitarian catastrophe predicted by anti-war politicians and protesters isn’t happening.

This morning’s Washington Post carries an intriguing report on the underlying military strategy.

According to a senior Bush administration official, surrender negotiations were underway yesterday between U.S. officials and a number of Iraqi unit commanders. “What they’re trying to do right now is to punish the regime and give forces a chance to capitulate,” this insider said. “It’s a selective use of force to see if you can separate the people from the regime.” … Another defense official agreed with that description of the war plan, saying that the first day of strikes—which also have targeted some headquarters buildings of the Republican Guard, some of Hussein’s most loyal troops—have been intended “to see if we can try to tip things, first.”
Maybe this strategy will fail. If it does, we’ll have to go back to the usual strategy of killing people until the other side gives up.But if it succeeds, consider the ways in which it will change the nature of warfare. Today’s technology enables us to hit targets more precisely and from greater distances. It allows us to put fewer soldiers in the field, where they’re vulnerable to conventional as well as chemical or biological weapons. It gives us the ability to communicate more quickly and widely with the population of a target country, making clear that we’re after their dictator, not them. We don’t have to roll tanks into their towns to show them our firepower. They know about it from television, radio, or their neighbors. We can win by “tipping,” not crushing. We spent centuries developing the ability to kill people. Now we’re developing the ability not to. Regime change is no longer a euphemism.Better yet, this strategy works only against a repressive regime. If the people support the regime, it’s much harder to separate the two. The nation’s soldiers are more likely to fight, and the people are more likely to help them. Moral error produces military failure, forcing the politicians of the attacking country to worry as much about the former as about the latter.The theory has one flaw. Just because we have the ability to spare people’s lives doesn’t mean we have the will. Our military is so powerful that our generals could massacre the Iraqis if they wanted to. That’s where restraining institutions are needed.If you’re an anti-war protester or politician, this theory of warfare should change the way you think and act. Your efforts to generate resistance to the war before there is any evidence of killing, much less atrocities, contribute to the political strength of the enemy regime. You encourage uncertainty about the war’s outcome, increasing the likelihood that the regime’s soldiers will fight and die. You make it more difficult to separate the regime from its people. You frustrate the tipping and bring on the crushing.If you want to minimize the killing, stop resisting the war. Instead, do what you can to make the war transparent and to hold your government accountable for unnecessary deaths. Help the media and human rights organizations monitor the battlefield. Help them get reports and pictures to the people of your country and the world. Build an incentive system that will strengthen your government’s will to spare lives. Its ability will do the rest.Thursday, March 20, 2003
12:30 p.m.: If you’ve been watching the war on television, you’re missing the real action. The real action is at the U.N. Security Council. That’s where diplomats from the world’s most important nations get together to solve the world’s problems. I know that’s true, because I heard it from diplomats at the U.N. Security Council. Between war bulletins from Iraq, I’ve been watching video of their meeting yesterday in New York. You can watch it
here on the C-SPAN Web site or read about it here on the U.N. Web site.

The council was meeting to discuss the latest update from weapons inspector Hans Blix. Blix was downcast because, having been forced to leave Iraq a few days ago so that the United States could start bombing it, his inspection report now seems a bit pointless. Not so, said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. They praised Blix’s work and assured him that the war was only an unpleasant interlude in the inspection process.

Fischer and de Villepin have declared passionately for months that war would be wrong and that their governments wouldn’t stand for it. So what are they doing about it, now that it’s started? The same thing they did about Saddam Hussein’s rearmament: nothing. Sloth and cowardice, it turns out, are as agreeable to American aggression as to Iraqi aggression.

“The Security Council has not failed,” Fischer told fellow council members. “The Security Council has made available the instruments to disarm Iraq peacefully. The Security Council is not responsible for what is happening outside the U.N.”

Wait, let’s hear that again. The Security Council is not responsible for what is happening outside the U.N.

And to think some people said the United Nations was useless.

Fischer went on: “The negotiations on the Iraq crisis … have shown how relevant and how indispensable the peacemaking role of the Security Council is. There is no alternative to this.”

Let’s see. The Security Council negotiation process failed to give pro-war nations the legitimacy they sought. It failed to give anti-war nations an effective veto. It failed to keep the peace. A massive American-led assault on Iraq is underway—I’d call that an alternative—and nobody’s paying attention to Fischer’s urgently relevant remarks. I’ve underestimated the German sense of humor.

De Villepin followed Fischer’s speech with an equally indispensable lecture on the wisdom of France. The U.N. weapons inspections, he explained, had merely been “interrupted” and would soon resume. To those who think this war will eradicate terrorism, de Villepin warned, “we say they run the risk of failing in their objectives.”

Fair enough. So here are our options: the risk of failure or the certainty of it. Gentlemen, gentlemen. Your words are as compelling as your deeds.

9:45 a.m.: What a strange war. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld emerges this morning not to tell Americans what we’re doing in Iraq, but to tell Iraqis which orders to ignore and how to surrender.

Aside from three missiles Iraq has fired without result, almost nothing has happened since we tried to kill Saddam last night. We took a preliminary shot, and now we’re sitting back, waiting for orders to go in. The war hasn’t really begun. And yet here’s our defense secretary, telling the other side what to do.

This isn’t a shooting war. It’s a talking war. Bush talks; Saddam talks; Bush’s aides talk about whether that was really Saddam talking; Rumsfeld talks.

Rumsfeld advises Iraqi leaders to “act to save themselves.” He says this war will be scarier than anything they’ve seen. He invites Iraqi officers to “ask themselves whether they want to die fighting for a doomed regime.” He has a long list of dos and don’ts. “Do not follow orders to destroy dams or flood villages,” he says. “Do not follow orders to destroy your country’s oil.” Next he’ll issue injunctions against mixing fabrics and eating animals with cloven hooves.

Then he starts talking about today’s radio lineup. “Military units that want to live … should listen to coalition radio broadcasts to receive instructions as to how you may demonstrate that you do not intend to fight,” he tells Iraqi soldiers. To civilians, he adds, “Stay in your homes and listen to coalition radio stations for instructions on what to do to remain safe.” Somewhere in the back of the room, a Pentagon press aide must be waving at him to mention the coalition’s Web site.

Talking has always been a big part of warfare. Often, it’s a substitute. People don’t want to die. If you throw a lot of rocks and stamp your feet and make the other side think you’re bigger and stronger, maybe they’ll surrender without a fight. If not, maybe you’ll run away. Bluster rules. Except now it’s got a coordinated multimedia strategy.