With Afghanistan almost over, it’s not unreasonable to ask, why aren’t we bombing Iraq? The answer is that we’re not capable of doing what we did in 1991, and our so-called Arab allies — that is, the Saudis — won’t cooperate. But the fact remains that we need to take out Saddam once and for all.
When American troops entered Kuwait City in 1991, they quickly took stock of the gratuitous damage done by the Iraqis before they left. There were flaming oil wells, dead and missing civilians, and the ruins of medical facilities. What shocked our guys as much as anything was what they found at the Kuwait Zoo.
The troops that entered the zoo found tigers shot and left to bleed to death. Monkeys with arms and legs cut off, screaming in pain. The Iraqis did this simply because they could. Maybe it gave them a moment’s feeling of superiority before they ran away, not wishing to face the American Army and Marines that were on the doorstep. Many took to the road in military and stolen civilian vehicles. When our fly-guys caught up with some of them on what later was known as the Highway of Death, they called it a “target-rich environment.” There were so many things to shoot at, you had to choose what to shoot first. The fighters and Warthogs made a few passes, and then pulled off. We could easily have killed more Iraqi troops, but we didn’t. And we stopped short of going to Baghdad, and ridding the world of the rats who infest it.
The truth is that we’re not currently manned or equipped to do the job alone. As faithful as I am to my alma mater, the Air Force can’t carry the show itself. You need boots on the ground. Lots of them. We would need an effort very much like Desert Storm to defeat the Iraqis and take out Saddam. Last time, we sent about 500,000 troops, heavy armor, and most of the Air Force into the fray. At this point we don’t have the airlift, sealift, or troop strength to do the same. Our allies, even the Brits, have signaled their unwillingness to go. The Saudi government — never wanting to miss an opportunity to put a sharp stick in our eye — will not let us use the bases that were the foundation of our attack. Without those bases, mounting that operation seems impossible. Even if we could use those bases, there is every reason to believe that Bill Clinton’s legacy leaves us unable to do the job.
Those of us who have been criticizing the Pentagon’s readiness have been partly right and partly wrong. The force is not hollow. We have over one million troops, but the tooth-to-tail ratio is way out of line. There are too many support troops, and too few warriors. On weapon systems, the picture is even worse. When budget warrior extraordinaire John Lehman left his post as Navy Secretary, our fleet was almost at a 600-ship strength. We were spending about five billion a year on new ships alone. Now, the navy has about 320 ships, and the number is dropping. There are Air Force pilots flying the same aircraft their grandfathers flew. Combat air patrols over New York, Washington, and other cities are using up thousands of hours of aircraft life.
Throughout the Clinton years, the Pentagon was regarded only as a treasure chest to be robbed for social spending. Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon is faced with paying for a war and playing catch-up on both research and development and weapon system purchases. The picture is bleak despite the President’s call for a 20 percent increase in Pentagon spending. The Pentagon’s budget, which may be as high as $380 billion next year, doesn’t spend anything like that on weapons. About a third goes for salaries and retirement pay. Another third goes for “O&M” — operations and maintenance costs — to keep what we have going. That leaves too little for buying new tools of war. And the tools are very expensive. First bought under Bush I, the F-22 Raptor was supposed to cost under $50 million a copy. After the Clinton era, the cost is now over $100 million each. Mr. Rumsfeld is superb, but he’s not a magician.
Regardless of the money, the job has to be done with or without it. Iraq is not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.” The “when” may not be first on the axis of evil list, because Iran is working so hard to be at the top of the list. Iranian army and intelligence forces are on the ground in western Afghanistan helping al Qaeda and Taliban leaders regroup. It’s no small matter to take on Iran, but my vote is to take Iran on first, while turning the covert guys loose on Iraq. That may buy us some time to get ready to do the job in Iraq. It’s a job that badly needs to be done, but doesn’t need to be done badly.
(Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush Administration and now occasionally appears as a talking warhead on the Fox News Channel.)
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