The Time-Table

31 January 2003

The Time-Table

By Gwynne Dyer

If we could sneak a look at US Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s agenda for the next month or so, it would probably go a bit like this:

16 February — Attack Iraq. Special Forces to seize oil-fields. Drop off dry-cleaning.

19 February — 10th Mountain Division enters Baghdad. NSC meeting p.m. Condi’s b/day: flowers?

21 February — Victory press conf. @ Pentagon. Regrets re Saddam shot while trying to escape. Collect dry-cleaning on way home.

It could happen exactly like that, too — if all the US technology works perfectly, and nobody in Iraq fights back, and everybody else in the Middle East behaves. (Except the dry-cleaning, of course — you KNOW that won’t be ready on time.) But there is another possible time-table, not to be found in Rumsfeld’s agenda but possibly lurking at the back of his mind, which goes like this.

16 February — US attacks Iraq. Saddam blows oil-fields. Anti-American riots in Jordan, Egypt, and Pakistan. Iraq fires Scud missiles at Israel.

17 February — Israel fires a hundred missiles at Iraq. Riots intensify throughout Muslim world. Hizbollah launches a hundred Katyushas into northern Israel from southern Lebanon.

18 February — Israel invades southern Lebanon. Coup in Pakistan; new government orders US forces out. Islamist Palestinians overthrow king of Jordan and cancel peace treaty with Israel.

19 February — 10th Mountain Division enters suburbs of Baghdad; severe street-fighting. Israeli forces start to push Palestinians out of West Bank into Jordan; fighting at Allenby Bridge.

20 February — Saudi Arabian National Guard rebels; civil war in Arabia. New Pakistan government declares it will make nuclear weapons available to Arab states confronting Israel. US casualties in Battle of Baghdad pass two hundred; first use of chemical weapons; spot oil price reaches $85 a barrel.

21 February — Don Rumsfeld resigns; forgets to pick up dry-cleaning.

Nobody knows which way Rumsfeld’s War will come out; you cannot read the future. But if even a third of the pessimistic projections were to come true, it would make this the most counter-productive war since Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Why not give the United Nations arms inspectors a little more time?

The inspectors are already crawling all over Iraq. Even if Saddam Hussein did have some of the chemical and biological weapons that President Bush still says he has — have you noticed how his talk of “mushroom clouds” has evaporated? — this is not the time when he’s going to give them to his terrorist friends. Assuming Saddam has terrorist friends, of course, which has not usually been the case in the past. (Division of labour: Syria and Libya and Iran backed terrorists; Iraq invaded its neighbours.)

Waiting six months or even a year for the UN inspectors to find the weapons of mass destruction’ that Mr Bush insists are hidden in Iraq, or confirm that they’re not there, seems a good deal saner than plunging into the unknown right now. According to the latest opinion polls, even a large majority of the American public thinks the inspectors should be given more time to do their work before the killing starts. So what’s the rush?

They say it gets so hot in the summer in Iraq that the planes can’t carry as many bombs and the troops will find it impossible in their chemical warfare suits. But the US is not exactly short of warplanes, and if the troops find it too hot, then wait for autumn. We can’t, they explain: a third of our troops are reservists who can’t be away from their jobs for that long, so once we call them up we have to use them fast. To which the appropriate answer is: send them home and call them up again next autumn if you still need them. As a chief petty officer pointed out to me rather forcefully in the first week after I joined the navy: if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.

This is all too reminiscent of the railway time-tables that allegedly made it impossible to stop World War One after the mobilisation orders had been sent out. Once the train delivered the troops to the end of the line they had to march across the frontier to clear the (specially long and wide) station platform for the troops arriving on the next train — and if you tried to pause the whole process there would be millions of soldiers stranded on trains all over the countryside without food, water, or any way of receiving orders if negotiations failed and you needed to start the process up again. It was just too disruptive to everybody’s carefully laid plans — and so we had the First World War instead.

We’re not looking at the Third World War here, just a regional dust-up that might kill only a few thousand people, and is unlikely to kill more than a hundred thousand no matter how bad things get. A few regimes might fall, but if they go down in a crisis now, they were probably bound to go under sooner or later. (Not all at once, though, which could add to the chaos considerably.) It just seems really stupid and vicious to make it happen one minute before you’re certain that it absolutely has to happen.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraph 6. (“The inspectors…neighbours”)