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Bush Opts for Precise Approach

Wielding force like a scalpel, targeting the psyche of Iraq's military, the president departs from his prior pattern of simply rolling over foes.

March 23, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — So far the war in Iraq is unfolding with more subtlety than the diplomacy that preceded it.

In the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations before the war, critics saw President Bush as a bulldozer who steamrolled over the views of other countries in his determination to force a military showdown with Saddam Hussein.

But now that the fighting has actually begun, Bush appears to be applying force like a scalpel -- delivering powerful but measured blows that most observers believe are aimed as much at the psyche as the fighting strength of the Iraqi military.

"There's no doubt that this is a classic -- and so far effective -- psy ops exercise," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), using the military shorthand for psychological operations.

"Definitely a political war," adds James B. Steinberg, who was the deputy national security advisor for President Clinton. "Either they want to decapitate the Iraqi leadership or they want the military to decide they had better capitulate before they get slaughtered."

The intricacy of that approach is surprising not only because it belies months of predictions that the United States would open the war with a widespread campaign of "shock and awe" airstrikes. It also departs from the typical manner in which Bush has pursued his goals at home and abroad.

In both arenas, Bush has advanced his aims more by rolling over opposition than by trying to persuade it.

In Congress he has muscled through his key initiatives on virtual party-line votes that depended less on convincing Democrats than enforcing discipline among Republicans. And, throughout the long deliberations at the U.N., he made clear that he would invade Iraq with or without support from other nations. Indeed, Bush once told a visiting senator, "I don't do nuance."

Now he is leading a military campaign that is among the most nuanced in recent American history. "He likes to confound, and just when you think he has become predictable and you put him in a box, he defies the conventional wisdom," says one Republican Senate aide who watches the White House closely. "And that's what I think he did in this case. Everybody was expecting that massive shock and awe, and what he did instead was to be flexible."

For weeks, Bush was impatient to end the diplomacy over Iraq. Yet many observers view the initial stages of the war as a steel-edged form of continuing negotiation, albeit with a different audience from the diplomats Bush was courting at the U.N.

Through the opening blows, the U.S. is encouraging the Iraqi military or other figures in the government to revolt against Hussein -- and threatening massive destruction if they don't.

Carrot and Stick

"It is pretty obvious now this is a carrot-and-stick" strategy, said McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

In his first briefing on the war last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said as much. "We continue to feel that there's no need for a broader conflict if the Iraqi leaders act to save themselves," he said. But he added that if the regime continued to resist, "what will follow ... will be of a force and scope and scale that has been beyond what has been seen before."

This approach has involved a kind of minuet between inducement and intimidation. The military has dropped leaflets and broadcast appeals for surrender, and conducted private negotiations with Iraqi leaders -- and then punctuated the message with airstrikes that are dramatic but still below the level of damage American forces could inflict.

"After you give them opportunities, you go the shock-and-awe route, and we back off and see what the reaction is then," said McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

On the ground, the approach appears similar. For the most part, the U.S. has bypassed urban areas and head-on confrontations with Iraqi troops in and around them.

Instead, American forces appear to be heading straight toward Baghdad, where the units that sustain Hussein's rule are concentrated.

That follows the tenets of mechanized warfare, which place the greatest emphasis on maintaining forward momentum, McCain notes. But it also increases pressure on the senior Iraqi military leadership -- who realize they are the ultimate target of the firepower speeding across the desert -- while minimizing destruction or casualties along the way.

Observers note that this approach in part reflects Rumsfeld's preference for unconventional and flexible military strategies that take maximum advantage of the unprecedented accuracy of American bombs and missiles.

Those technological advances are "changing the face of warfare," said Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's advisory Defense Policy Board, at an American Enterprise Institute briefing Friday.

"It means tremendous economies of force -- force applied with great precision only where it is necessary and only when it is necessary," Perle said.

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