War Diary - Stratfore

March 19, 2003

U.S. President George W. Bush has set a deadline of 8:15 p.m. EST on March 19 -- or early Thursday, March 20 in Baghdad -- for war. If by that time Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his sons have not left Iraq, the United States will launch an invasion, at a time of its choosing. The Iraqi government formally rejected the ultimatum. Nevertheless, there is an element of risk in the structure of the ultimatum.

No ultimatum can be set that does not define two things: the demand and the time of expiration. Setting the time in this case was easy. Setting the demand was much more difficult and potentially dangerous, in the sense that it can potentially set the stage for complicating maneuvers by Hussein, as well as leaving fundamental questions open.

The United States has three interests in Iraq. Two of them are public: destruction of weapons of mass destruction and regime change. The third interest, using Iraq as a base from which to redefine the Middle East, has been hinted at but never fully defined. It is nevertheless the critical requirement. All of these interests have a common foundation: U.S. troops must be able to enter and occupy Iraq for some period of time.

If Hussein and his sons leave Iraq, under guarantees of some sort of amnesty obviously, the regime that will remain in place will be Hussein's regime. It will consist of the men who worked with him through the years -- it will be the regime without the leader. In fact, it might be the regime without the leader only temporarily. The boss can leave; it doesn't mean that he won't return. It won't mean that he can't continue controlling events. Exile with amnesty could simply mean the status quo ante.

If Hussein were to suddenly accept the proposal, leaving a trusted aide in place, the United States would essentially find itself in an interesting position. It would have lost the justification for invasion without having achieved any of its three goals: guaranteed destruction of weapons of mass destruction under reliable international scrutiny, fundamental regime change and a base of operations for its troops.

Therefore, the Bush administration must be confident in one of two things. First, through the Russian and Arab channels, there have been ongoing discussions of exile as a resolution to the crisis. The United States must have concluded from both initiatives that the probabilities of Hussein leaving are nil. Even if Hussein believes he will lose the war, he has the example of Slobodan Milosevic in front of him. Regardless of the diplomatic end game, he does not believe that he will not be brought in front of a court and sentenced to life in prison. The problem with the international tribunal system is that it reduces the motivation of dictators to negotiate and increases the likelihood of conflict.

The second reason might be that the United States is confident that once Hussein left Iraq, Washington would be able to handle the second-tier officials who would take over from him. Why Bush administration officials would believe that is not clear, since the second tier also consists of some extraordinarily tough and ruthless men. But perhaps they have reason to think that they could reach some sort of agreement with these men.

Whatever the reasoning, the Bush administration is obviously not afraid of a Hussein maneuver locking it in a new grid. At 4:15 a.m. Thursday morning, Iraq time, the ultimatum will lapse and the United States can begin war at any time after that.

One important point ought to be clear. If surprise is the foundation of victory, the Bush administration has not left very much room for surprise. The forces that will launch the invasion are well known. Their location is clear. The geography is defined. Now the time is being pinned down as well. Some surprises are clearly needed in this war, and time is the one variable over which there still is some degree of control.

Unless U.S. leaders are totally confident of their ability to defeat Iraq under any conceivable circumstance, they must build a surprise in here somewhere. Perhaps that surprise might be how quickly after the ultimatum expires that war will begin. Under any circumstances, unless something extraordinary happens in the next 48 hours, the United States will certainly be at war by the weekend.