No cakewalk

Robert Novak
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Posted: Mar 27, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- "There were some who were supportive of going to war with Iraq who described it as a cakewalk," Tim Russert told Donald Rumsfeld on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday. The secretary of Defense seemed surprised. "I never did," he replied. "No one I know in the Pentagon ever did." While Rumsfeld spoke the literal truth, his response was still disingenuous.

Rumsfeld had been asked about the cakewalk description several times, rejecting it but still defending the premises for such a judgment. While its source was not technically a Pentagon official, it was a longtime Rumsfeld friend and lieutenant: Kenneth Adelman, appointed by the secretary to the Defense Policy Board (an outside advisory panel). In demanding military action against Saddam Hussein, Adelman has promised repeatedly there would be no military difficulty.

U.S. general officers I have questioned over the last year were angry that anybody -- particularly an official adviser -- should spread the impression this would not be a real war, with killing and dying. Nevertheless, the cakewalk image took hold among some of the strongest hawks in Congress and in the public mind. That has led to widespread surprise and dismay in beholding what Rumsfeld accurately told Russert: "A war is a war. It's a brutal thing."

Nevertheless, Adelman and Rumsfeld both overestimated the gap between U.S. and Iraqi military prowess. According to Defense Department sources, Rumsfeld at first insisted that vast air superiority and a degraded Iraqi military would enable 75,000 U.S. troops to win the war. Gen. Tommy Franks, the theater commander-in-chief, convinced Rumsfeld to send 250,000 (augmented by 45,000 British). However, the Army would have preferred a much deeper force, leading to anxiety inside the Pentagon in the first week of war.

Unlike Vietnam, strongest advocates of action against the Iraqi regime had estimated the lowest troop needs. Former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle, named by Rumsfeld to head the Defense Policy Board, predicted in February 2001 that Hussein would be gone within a year. I asked Perle whether a major U.S. expeditionary force would be needed. "No, certainly not," he replied. "I don't think that's necessary."

Adelman, Perle's Defense Policy Board colleague who held important government posts as Rumsfeld's subordinate, was interviewed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Dec. 6, 2001. "I don't agree that you need an enormous number of American troops," said Adelman. Hussein's army "is down to one-third than it was before, and I think it would be a cakewalk." Since then, Adelman has stuck to that estimate.

Last Nov. 23, I asked Rumsfeld whether he agreed with Adelman. "Well, I really don't," he said, but then indicated he understood how his friend came to that conclusion. "Saddam Hussein's forces are considerably weaker today than" in 1991, while "our forces are considerably stronger." He suggested that only Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" -- presumably chemical weapons -- could "change the equation." No such weapons have yet been used, but the Iraqis have put up stout resistance.

While Army officers would have preferred a larger commitment, even what was finally approved for Operation Iraqi Freedom was reduced when the 4th Infantry Division was denied Turkey as a base to invade northern Iraq. The Defense and State departments point fingers. Secretary of State Colin Powell is criticized for not flying to Ankara to convince the Turkish government. The Pentagon is criticized for not immediately dispatching the division via the Red Sea.

"We have never done something like this with this modest a force at such a distance from its bases," retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a division commander in the first Gulf War, told the BBC Monday, contending Rumsfeld had erred. A bigger stir was made in the Defense establishment by the column in Tuesday's Washington Post by retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a noted writer on military affairs. E-mails and phone calls flowed through the Pentagon agreeing with Peters's view that Rumsfeld committed a "serious strategic miscalculation" in not sending enough troops and relying on the "shock and awe" bombing campaign.

Yet, civilian and military sources high in the government now believe coalition forces, short on manpower, must rely on air power to win the battle of Baghdad. Clearly, it is no cakewalk.