The rhetoric about "punishing Saddam" and the ability of US air power to strike at will in Iraq, masks the fact that the Iraqi leader is in a strong political position despite his extreme military vulnerability. His most likely response to air attack is to evict Unscom - the UN weapons inspectors. They cannot operate without his permission and assistance. Once the bombing is over the UN Security Council will have to discuss with Iraq their return to Baghdad. The US will end up negotiating with Saddam, which is exactly what President Clinton said he would not do.
The objective of Gulf War II is therefore very different from Gulf War I in 1991. Then the aim was to throw the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, something which could done by destroying its ability to fight. This time the purpose is to force Saddam Hussein to change his policy. "We do not have as a goal the toppling of Saddam Hussein," said William Cohen, the US Defence Secretary, at the weekend, warning against "unreasonable expectations" that the strikes would in themselves eliminate Iraqi biological or chemical weapons. In other words the battlefield is in the mind of the Iraqi leader.
The present crisis is the culmination of a series of little-noticed failures in American policy towards Iraq. Between 1991 and 1996 the CIA did, indeed, back a series of attempts to topple the Iraqi leader by dissidents in the Iraqi army. The agency operated freely in Iraqi Kurdistan from which Iraqi forces had withdrawn. But the effort was half-hearted. Washington was content, in the words of Tony Lake, the former National Security Adviser, "to keep Saddam in his box". Attempted coups in Baghdad were bloodily crushed. In 1996 Saddam sent his tanks back into Kurdistan, and the CIA had to flee in their worst debacle since the Bay of Pigs.
The reason why the present crisis over UN inspectors began last October is that Saddam Hussein feels more secure at home than he has in years. Ever since Gen Hussein Kamel, Saddam's chief lieutenant and son-in-law, fled to Jordan in 1995 (and unwisely returned to Baghdad to be promptly murdered) there have been no serious signs of divisions within the inner core of the Iraqi leadership. This is important because a Saddam Hussein who felt his grip on power is weakening would be more likely cave-in under the threat of a bombing campaign.
The warning from William Cohen that Americans should not have exaggerated expectations about the bombing campaign, shows nervousness in Washington about where all this is heading. The problem is that in 1991 the Gulf air war was oversold. It appeared that war could be effectively waged by the US and its allies without casualties to their own side (the heaviest losses suffered proportionate to size were to a Rumanian medical unit in Saudi Arabia which tried to make its own alcohol).
Airforces around the world have ever since tried to persuade their governments that a revolutionary type of war had been discovered in the Gulf conflict. The US airforce, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO) in Washington, has no less than $58bn worth of guided munitions and the means to deliver them, in use or on order. Exaggerated accounts were given about the accuracy of the Stealth bomber; "One Target, One Bomb" was the slogan of one defence contractor. The GAO study revealed that every Iraqi target destroyed in 1991 had been hit by an average of 44 tons of unguided and 11 tons of guided munitions.
"Smart" weapons have brought incremental, but not revolutionary changes to war. Big static targets are easy to hit. On the first day of the Gulf War, television viewers across the world saw telecommunications towers in Baghdad explode as they were hit. What was not apparent was that this was as good as it was going to get. Small mobile targets like tanks cannot be hit unless planes fly low, when they become vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. The US airforce claimed to have destroyed 90 mobile missile launchers in 1991. The real figure, an air force study revealed, was nil. The pilots had hit decoys and petrol tankers on their way to Jordan.
It is not that air power does not work, but, as with the British strategic bombing offensive against Germany in 1942-45, the claims of its protagonists are exaggerated. Bombing does not win wars on its own. Its effectiveness depends on presuppositions about the strength of will of the enemy. But, as in 1942, the claims of airforces who say they can do a job, which otherwise would have to be done by ground troops with heavy casualties, remains deeply attractive to governments.
Ironically, this belief that control of a country can be exercised by air power alone was first pioneered in Iraq in the 1920s, by Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary, just after Britain captured it from the Turks. Ground troops were largely withdrawn. According to the Gulf specialist Paul Rich, JH Thomas, a subsequent Colonial Secretary, commended the performance of the RAF in Iraq, saying: "By prompt demonstrations [of air power] on the first signs of trouble over any area affected, however distant, tribal insubordination has been calmed before it could grow dangerous." In a withering criticism of this policy, as early as 1921, Sir Laming Worthington- Evans, Secretary of State for War, wrote: "If the Arab population realise that the peaceful control of Mesopotamia ultimately depends on our intention of bombing women and children, I am very doubtful if we shall gain the acquiescence of the fathers and husbands of Mesopotamia as a whole."
Supporters of a new bombing campaign against Iraq will say immediately that it is not aimed at civilians. But the problem is not accuracy but intelligence. In 1991 American aircraft destroyed the Amariyah shelter in Baghdad in the belief that Saddam Hussein was inside. Instead their bombs killed 500 women and children.
James Rubin, the State Department press secretary of Madeleine Albright, says the American aim is "compliance, compliance, compliance" with the UN resolutions of 1991, under which UN inspection teams operate in Iraq. But the resolutions were only accepted by Iraq under the threat of ground attack by the Gulf War alliance. If the second round of the Gulf War is confined to air attack alone, then it is lost even before it has begun.