April 1, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

How Goes the War?

No one promised you a rose garden. Where did you get the idea that Iraq would be a cakewalk? Who told you that Saddam Hussein's regime would fall like a house of cards?

These phrases and others like them have been employed hundreds of times – since the war began by pundits and commentators critical of the American-led campaign.  

For example there was this recent quote in The New York Times by an unnamed “former aid to the first President Bush”: “It was hubris to go on Fox News and proclaim the war would be a cakewalk.”

But the truth is that in the weeks and months leading up to the war – as Lexis/Nexis research verifies — no one prominent in this administration described the conflict in such sunny terms, no one in authority was predicting that regime change in Iraq would be either quick or easy.

In fact, on March 17th, two days before the first bombs fell, NPR's National Security correspondent said: “I certainly haven't seen any military officers, any uniformed military leaders displaying any kind of bravado or projecting any kind of false assurances about how risky this operation is likely to be.”

What those who argued for the use of force did say was that a war against Saddam was necessary, just and winnable. (1) Necessary: because a rogue dictator with terrorists ties developing weapons of mass destruction represents an unacceptable threat to the security of the US and its allies. (2) Just: because Saddam is among the most brutal dictators anywhere in the world. (3) Winnable: because no matter how many suicide bombers and civilian shields Saddam throws at America's military forces, he cannot prevail – so long as we have the resolve – and the patience — to defeat him.

Yes, at one point, Dick Cheney did predict that the conflict would take “weeks not months.” But since we've just reached the two-week point, we have at least 6 weeks more to go before the Vice President can be accused of underestimation.

In the first days of the conflict expectations were raised – but by facts on the ground, not by anything said by official Washington.  The precision bombs that struck Baghdad on March 19th raised the possibility that the regime might have been “decapitated.” (And for all we know Saddam is dead or injured – as of this writing he's only been seen on taped video and an announcement this week that he would address the nation did not materialize – instead a flack read a statement attributed to Saddam.)

As American troops began to stream northward from Kuwait with no real resistance, it was possible to hope that one of the dictator's generals would stage a successful mutiny.  

But that was a long-shot – and no one in a position to know said otherwise.

Saddam, we should recall, models himself on Stalin — a barbaric mass murderer who died in his own bed 50 years ago last month. Stalin achieved this largely because it was his practice to execute not just those who were disloyal to him but also those who might one day might become disloyal.

In addition, under Saddam (as under Stalin) commissars hover behind generals and secret police pervade every neighborhood watching for signs of dissent. One example: the old woman who waved to coalition troops – and then was taken out and hanged in the town square.

Saddam also has been clever enough to handsomely reward his legions of thugs and assassins. Few of them look forward to a career change in a post-Saddam era. So they fight and fight hard to keep the privileges they enjoy.

Understanding all that, it becomes apparent that this war is probably going about as well as could be expected. The oil wells have been saved. There are no huge floods of refugees. The Turks are not fighting the Kurds. Israel has not been pulled in. Kuwait has suffered only light damage because our Patriot anti-missile system is working.

Were there those who hoped the war would go even better? Of course. But hopes should never be confused with expectations.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism, and a Scripps Howard columnist.