One thing people get frustrated about with our media is the way in which there is no accountability or consequences for past mistakes, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. But a lot of the self-same people who make that complaint continue to take seriously people who should have been renounced long ago. Saletan is one such person. He hasn't just gotten war wrong. He has gotten the specific question of humane warfare, collateral damage, and the technological capacity of our military spectacularly, incredibly, unimaginably wrong. People forget. But I don't.
In the last 24 hours, we've all seen pictures of Iraqi soldiers surrendering without firing a shot. We've heard on-air eyewitness accounts of white sheets thrown over Iraqi tanks to signal soldiers' intention not to fight. We've seen no reports of a highway of death or of massive bombing on the scale of the Kosovo war. The humanitarian catastrophe predicted by anti-war politicians and protesters isn't happening.
This morning's Washington Post carries an intriguing report on the underlying military strategy.
According to a senior Bush administration official, surrender negotiations were underway yesterday between U.S. officials and a number of Iraqi unit commanders. "What they're trying to do right now is to punish the regime and give forces a chance to capitulate," this insider said. "It's a selective use of force to see if you can separate the people from the regime." … Another defense official agreed with that description of the war plan, saying that the first day of strikes—which also have targeted some headquarters buildings of the Republican Guard, some of Hussein's most loyal troops—have been intended "to see if we can try to tip things, first."
Maybe this strategy will fail. If it does, we'll have to go back to the usual strategy of killing people until the other side gives up.
But if it succeeds, consider the ways in which it will change the nature of warfare.
Today's technology enables us to hit targets more precisely and from greater distances. It allows us to put fewer soldiers in the field, where they're vulnerable to conventional as well as chemical or biological weapons. It gives us the ability to communicate more quickly and widely with the population of a target country, making clear that we're after their dictator, not them. We don't have to roll tanks into their towns to show them our firepower. They know about it from television, radio, or their neighbors. We can win by "tipping," not crushing. We spent centuries developing the ability to kill people. Now we're developing the ability not to. Regime change is no longer a euphemism.
Better yet, this strategy works only against a repressive regime. If the people support the regime, it's much harder to separate the two. The nation's soldiers are more likely to fight, and the people are more likely to help them. Moral error produces military failure, forcing the politicians of the attacking country to worry as much about the former as about the latter.
The theory has one flaw. Just because we have the ability to spare people's lives doesn't mean we have the will. Our military is so powerful that our generals could massacre the Iraqis if they wanted to. That's where restraining institutions are needed.
If you're an anti-war protester or politician, this theory of warfare should change the way you think and act. Your efforts to generate resistance to the war before there is any evidence of killing, much less atrocities, contribute to the political strength of the enemy regime. You encourage uncertainty about the war's outcome, increasing the likelihood that the regime's soldiers will fight and die. You make it more difficult to separate the regime from its people. You frustrate the tipping and bring on the crushing.
If you want to minimize the killing, stop resisting the war. Instead, do what you can to make the war transparent and to hold your government accountable for unnecessary deaths. Help the media and human rights organizations monitor the battlefield. Help them get reports and pictures to the people of your country and the world. Build an incentive system that will strengthen your government's will to spare lives. Its ability will do the rest.It should go without saying: a person who got something of such importance so jaw-droppingly wrong should not still be getting paid to write about foreign policy, and certainly shouldn't be taken seriously on that subject by anyone ever again. Of course, it's Slate, a publication with neither standards nor shame. But people who think that there should be accountability in media will continue to treat Saletan as someone worth listening to. Why?