How Iraq might defeat the mighty U.S.A


PressInfo # 161

 September 25, 2002


By Jonathan Power, TFF Associate


George Bush may be averse to reading up on the Vietnam war, which he managed to duck, but how about recalling the famous  "rumble in the jungle" in the Congo, the heavy weight fight between the unbeatable George Foreman, none of whose opponents had lasted more than three minutes in the ring, and the up and coming, always boasting, Muhammad Ali? The fight was at 4.a.m so that the air was cooler and the American TV audience could watch it in prime time.

In round two, the weaker Ali appeared to cower against the ropes and Foreman pounded him again and again, whilst Ali whispered taunts in his ear, "George, you're not hittin'" and "George, you disappoint me". Foreman lost his temper and his punches began to flow wild, while Ali let the spring in the ropes help him absorb those he landed. By the fifth round Foreman was exhausted and in round eight Ali simply knocked Foreman to the ground and he stayed there.

History is replete with examples, long before Vietnam, when the weakest win. In his book "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars" Andrew Mack argues that a country's relative resolve explains success in what the war jargon now calls asymmetric conflicts. And Stanley Karnow in his landmark study of the Vietnam War observes, "As a practical strategy the bombing backfired. American planners had predicted that it would drive the enemy to capitulation, yet not only did the North Vietnamese accept the sacrifices, but the raids rekindled the nationalistic zeal, so that many who may have disliked Communist rule joined the resistance to alien attack."

It goes without saying that victories of the weakest are a minority outcome. One doesn't have to go back to Thucydides to be convinced of that- the bombing of Afghanistan, Belgrade and the first Gulf war are evidence enough. Yet it happens enough to be worrying. Ivan Arreguin-Toft writing in Harvard University's "International Security" has examined all the wars of the 200 year period 1800 to 1998 and found two related puzzles. Weak actors were victorious in 30% of all wars and that in the more recent era it has happened more often. Could it be that strong countries have a lower interest in winning because their survival is not at stake? (The opposite case being true for the weaker party.) Delays and reverses on the battlefield all work to discourage war-weary publics from pursuing a war, if victory seems very far away.

Guerrilla warfare as perfected by Mao Tse-tung has been one, well copied, way of reversing the tables. "In guerrilla warfare", the victor in the Chinese civil war wrote, "select the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightening blow, seek a lightening decision…" It was probably Mao's contribution to military thought, influencing wars in Cuba, Algeria, Malaya and the Mujahideen against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan that has changed the balance of the statistics in favour of the weaker one winning over the last half century. Since strong actors tend to have inflated expectations of their own superiority such tactics can be extraordinarily demoralising, extending a war long after it seems than the conventional forces have been defeated. (The war in Vietnam continued for four years after the U.S. military concluded they had "defeated" the enemy.)

The U.S. should try now to put itself in Saddam's shoes. Unlike last time Saddam now knows that he is at an immense disadvantage. His air force has gone, half his navy is destroyed, and half his tanks. He probably has no nuclear weapons, but does have chemical and biological weapons with fairly primitive means of delivery. How does he turn the tables?

Clearly his objective should be to draw the U.S. into urban guerrilla warfare, not to meet a military advance head on in the desert as last time. Neither should Iraq even consider an attack on Israel. This urban warfare against the American invaders will be a bloody affair, causing immense civilian suffering, which doubtless will be aired on television all over the world, putting immense pressure on the American leadership to get the war over quickly. At that point Saddam could attack the American supply lines from the rear with chemical weapons, disrupting the fighting and weakening the urban offensive. The U.S., deeply engaged in the cities and towns of Iraq, could not reply in kind, even if wanted to, since this would stymie its own forces as much as the enemy's.

Saddam's strategy has to be as much psychological as military - to convince neighbouring Arab and Muslim populations that an injustice is being done, and thus precipitate upheaval and political change in the most vulnerable states, Jordan and nuclear-armed Pakistan in particular, whilst causing real headaches for the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. At the same time, since he knows that the support for going to war with Iraq has been a very volatile matter inside the United States itself, with polls showing wildly different moods over a relatively short time span, he will do his utmost to make the fighting as bloody as possible and push the U.S., as the French did in Algeria, to overreact and use methods that bring it into disrepute, knowing that world opinion will hold the U.S. to a higher standard than Iraq.

And then remember Murphy's law: what can go wrong will go wrong.



Jonathan Power can be reached by phone on + 44 7785 351172 or by e-mail:



© TFF 2002



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