Looking on the dark side

An Englishwoman reports from Washington on the US capital's demoralisation.

Helen Searls

Topics World

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The war in Iraq is only 11 days old, but already the mood in Washington is one of creeping defeatism and demoralisation. Who would have thought that a lone suicide bomber and a few snipers were all that it would take to knock the wind out of the sails of the much heralded ‘shock and awe’ offensive?

Now in Washington all talk of shock and awe has been quietly set aside. Newspaper columnists and political talk-shows reflect a tone of self-doubt and unease about the conduct of the war to date.

Every aspect of the military campaign suddenly seems to be problematic. After only days in the battlefield ex-generals are popping up on TV fretting that US troops are tired and in need of rest. Embedded reporters tell us that the troops face strict rationing because resources are overstretched and supply lines too fragile. Desperately needed reinforcements may be weeks or months away.

The media is filled with images of US troops bogged down in a hostile environment. News reports dwell on setbacks rather than victories. In the New York Times, for example, there is a daily spread of photographs and moving tales of the young US servicemen who have died or been wounded in the conflict (1). Across the board there is a subdued mood and an unspoken sense that the campaign has gone badly wrong.

The criticisms are not merely coming from the press or the media. The once tight-lipped military leaders now apparently feel free to air their own complaints and concerns. Field commander Lieutenant General William Wallace seemed to express the frustration of many on the battlefield when he complained that the enemy they are facing in Iraq was ‘different than the one we’d war-gamed against’.

Most significantly, the sense of demoralisation also permeates the Bush administration. By day nine of the war, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was obviously on the defensive, when he attempted to deflect the criticism that the administration had mistakenly expected the war to be a quick and easy cakewalk.

Faultlines that were evident within the administration before the start of the war have remained visible. The leading ‘dove’ in the administration, secretary of state Colin Powell, appears to be increasingly uncomfortable with events every time he appears before the press. The most hawkish member of the Bush administration is also experiencing difficulties: in the current issue of the New Yorker, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld is lambasted for trying to fight the war on the cheap by deploying an army that is too small and too lightly equipped.

Even the president seems to be affected. We are, of course, assured by White House aides that President Bush is totally unfazed by all the current concern and doubt in the press. But the inability of the president to do anything more than a nervous and scripted news conference and a few terse public remarks since shooting started does little to project an image of a wartime president oozing self-assurance and confidence in his game-plan.

It is strange that the defeatist mood comes at a time when the USA has faced no genuine military setbacks in Iraq. True, US troops did not experience the open-armed welcome from Iraqis that so many ridiculously anticipated. But they have not faced any defeats or major obstacles either.

Nor can opposition at home be blamed for the current mood of self-doubt and defeat. Opinion polls repeatedly show that three-quarters of Americans support Bush’s war effort. And nobody in their wildest dreams could accuse the Democrats of putting Bush under any political pressure. House and Senate Democrats have all stayed completely silent about the war since the Democratic leader in the Senate Tom Daschle was blasted by the media for making some mildly critical comments about the failure of diplomatic efforts in the days before war began.

And while antiwar protesters have had unprecedented success in commanding media attention, it is doubtful that their efforts can explain why such a sense of demoralisation hangs over Washington. Many in the media have drawn parallels with the Vietnam War, but today’s antiwar protestors lack the passion needed to genuinely shake the establishment.

By their own admission, many protestors seem consumed by the same mood of defeat that currently afflicts the administration. When protestors themselves complain that their voices are not heard and exude a sense of resignation that their efforts are making no impact, it is hard to credit their deeds with fuelling the mindset of unease and disquiet that pervades Washington.

The only explanation that makes sense is that the demoralisation originates from within the administration itself. Critics of Bush like to portray the president as an arrogant warmonger, leading the nation into battle despite the world’s objections. But the reality is quite different.

The hesitancy and uncertainty that characterised the lead-up to this conflict has now been taken into the battlefield. While the outcome of the war is not in question, its expected duration, according to some experts, has quickly gone from days to weeks, to months and now a year.

When the resolve of the commander in chief of the world’s unquestioned superpower is publicly shaken after less than two weeks of minor skirmishes, it is difficult to see where the will needed to win such a war is going to come from.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

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Topics World


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