POLITICS APRIL 21, 2003
The press has reported that the Iraqi regime spent the prewar months scrutinizing tapes of Black Hawk Down for military lessons. I've begun to suspect that they've also been studying White House press conferences. How else to explain the eerie similarity between the pedagogical styles of Saddam Hussein's chief spokesman, Mohammed Said Al Sahaf, and Ari Fleischer? Both are highly disciplined in repeating their insult of choice for their opponents-Al Sahaf preferring "criminal" and Fleischer "obstructionist." Those who watch Fleischer in action are familiar with his practice of escaping questions with long, convoluted answers intended to befuddle the press. Al Sahaf has mastered the same skill. At a press conference last week, for example, he was asked why Iraqi troops were equipped with chemical-protection suits if Iraq does not have any chemical weapons. "All the armies, when there are wars, especially when there is aggressive war like the American-British war against Iraq, and they're trying to invade, which they are trying now and which we will foil it, hopefully, the standard that by the armies, the equipment of the fighters and there should be among these equipment should be a mask and a description of any weapons," he explained. After this, the reporters had no choice but to change the subject. But the real trademark of both spokesmen is their talent for remaining utterly unflappable in the face of bad news. Rather than attempt to cast unpleasant information in the most favorable light, both spokesmen prefer instead to deny it altogether. Here's Fleischer on February 28, when asked about Bush's approval rating, which had dropped almost continuously for the previous year from the mid-70s to the mid-50s: "I don't think the president looks at it that way. I think there's been remarkable stability to his polling numbers, frankly." This sort of straight-faced stiff-arming is Fleischer's specialty, but his Iraqi counterpart is just as good. When asked last week about American claims of capturing Saddam International Airport, Al Sahaf replied, "We kicked them out. We pulverized them, defeated them in the outside of the airport." You wouldn't think the leadership of the world's greatest democracy could match up with a totalitarian state in terms of message discipline. That Bush has been able to do so ought to be a source of true pride.
Just as technology has revolutionized war, so too has it revolutionized war punditry. Debates that once took years and consumed reams of paper have been reduced to instantaneous affairs thanks to computer databases such as Google and LexisNexis. The first hints of this revolution could be seen in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war, when pro-war pundits mockingly recycled the quotes of doves who had predicted a bloody quagmire. It was barely one week into the second Gulf war that the doves began to exact their revenge by accusing their opponents of predicting a cakewalk. The problem for hawks is that one of them actually did predict the war would be a cakewalk. ("I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk," wrote former Reaganite and current Defense Policy Board member Ken Adelman last year.) And so, at the first sign of trouble, doves seized upon this unfortunate turn of phrase. A Frank Rich column from March 30 approvingly quoted Peter Arnett as a brave dissenter from the cakewalk consensus. "It's deja vu all over again, the idea that this would be a walkover, the idea that the people of Basra would throw flowers at the Marines," Arnett told Rich. "The war is not the cakewalk Bush forecast. Ordinary Iraqis are not greeting American troops with flowers, while U.S. casualties mount," wrote Robert Kuttner, my former editor at The American Prospect.
In the face of these recriminations, conservatives immediately panicked. Nobody in the administration, they insisted, had ever predicted an easy war. (In truth, even putting aside Adelman, who is technically not a member of the administration, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers had predicted "a short, short conflict," and Vice President Dick Cheney had said much the same.) Still, the perception of a cakewalk had to come from somewhere. If it didn't come from the right, where could it have originated? It was around this time that a quote from a former president began to circulate. "To its credit, the Bush administration was careful not to say-or even much imply-that Gulf War II would be a breeze," asserted National Review. "The only major figure who did was the immediate ex-president, Bill Clinton. Days before the opening of hostilities, he said, 'This war is going to be over in a flash.'" So it turned out that the nation had not been led to believe in the promise of easy war by Bush. The nation had been led to believe in the promise of easy war by Clinton! But then a funny thing happened. After a short pause, the U.S. military resumed its drive to Baghdad, and the war since then has gone about as easily as the hawks predicted. Iraqis actually have given flowers to the soldiers. The war now looks like, well, something of a cakewalk. Not literally, of course-the soldiers have yet to be presented with actual cakes. But, as wars go, if conquering virtually an entire country while sustaining (as of press time) around 100 combat deaths doesn't qualify as a quick, easy war, it's hard to say what does. Hawks would now be in a position to gloat, if only they had kept their nerve in the first few days. Now the only person they can credit for having the foresight to predict the course of the war is Clinton.
One of the main accusations against cakewalk hawks is that so few of them have experienced war. Well, I've never been anywhere near a war, but I have been in a cakewalk. The op-ed warriors make it sound glamorous, but, for those of us on the ground, it was a grueling ordeal. It happened at a summer fair at my elementary school. Like a Vietnam veteran with flashbacks of Khe Sanh, my memory of the event is limited to hazy, chaotic fragments due to its traumatic nature, or possibly due to the fact that I was only five years old at the time. In any event, I can't recall exactly how it worked, only that it had some vague resemblance to musical chairs, with a cake as the prize. It took the form of a long, circular march underneath the blazing sun on an asphalt parking lot with a bunch of other scared, confused kids. (When you picture this scene, the soundtrack you should have in your head is "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones.) I was under the impression that I would receive cake at the end of it, but that turned out to be just one more of the lies the authorities told us during the 1970s. And so, when I hear the pundits talk about a cakewalk as if it were as simple as destroying an Iraqi armored division, I worry that they will lead future generations into cakewalks without a clear understanding of what that entails. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.