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Prediction: January will be a hot month in the Persian Gulf

Sometimes, there's just no getting away from it. Sometimes, you have to put up or shut up. Journalists usually like to tell you about what has already happened, or give you some long-winded explanation about what all those things you've already seen on television really mean. What they don't like to do is tell you what is going to happen before it actually does. It's too easy to be wrong and look dumb.

But every once in a while, it's time to come out of hiding, to climb out on that limb, take a deep breath and do the dreaded deed _ make a prediction. Here's mine:

War will break out in the Persian Gulf in the first half of January. Casualties will be very heavy, but the fighting will be finished by the end of February and Saddam Hussein will be out of a job.

There. The deed's done.

I don't like this prediction. I'd like nothing better than to be wrong _ really. But this is what I think will happen. It's also what a lot of other people are beginning to think too.

This isn't based on any insider knowledge. Nobody in the White House or the Pentagon called me and whispered the precise attack date. The prediction is a hunch, based strictly on what's out there for anybody to see if they look hard enough.

You don't have to look very hard to know that war fever is building. Mainly, this is because of a carefully orchestrated and shrewdly nuanced series of speeches by President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. The latest example is Bush saying this week that economic sanctions against Iraq aren't working so well and that he's "had it" with the way American hostages are being treated in Iraq and Kuwait.

Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, was asked about all this war talk on Wednesday and said it was designed "to prepare the American people for any eventuality. If we do have to take dramatic action, we want them to know why." That may be so, but it could also mean that the administration has already come to the conclusion that war with Iraq is inevitable.

It's my own hunch that the decision in favor of military action has already been made, that Bush and his generals are determined to eliminate Saddam Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs as well as the man himself.

But for now anyway, all the war talk probably doesn't signal an imminent U.S. attack. In the first place, we don't seem to be ready for that yet. The generals want to get about 100,000 or so more troops into the Persian Gulf region before taking on Iraq. At least that's what they say.

So why does war appear so inevitable and why doesn't it start now?

The first part of the question is easy. Diplomacy and economic sanctions don't seem to be working. President Bush said as much this week. Saddam Hussein isn't convinced yet that Bush and the rest of those lined up against him really mean business. Apparently, he still thinks that Washington and its allies will get tired of this whole mess and eventually go along with some compromise that lets him keep some of his winnings.

Maybe Hussein is right. Maybe he's smarter than all of us. More likely, he's got bad advisers who misread all the confusing signals coming out of Washington these days. Whatever the reason, he doesn't seem to be budging from his determination to hold on to every inch of Iraqi territory his army captured in August.

As for the more than 240,000 American soldiers now deployed in the gulf region, they don't seem to be budging either. Neither is President Bush, who continues to demand a full and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal.

So unless any of this changes drastically _ and that doesn't look likely for now _ war looks all but inevitable.

But why the first half of January?

First, because when the attack order comes down, America's generals want to be able to flatten the Iraqis as quickly as possible. They really want those extra 100,000 or so troops as an insurance policy. Getting them and their equipment to the region will take a bit of time.

Second, President Bush has tentatively scheduled a visit to Europe in mid-November and a tour of South America for the end of November and the beginning of December. It's unlikely he'll be ordering his forces to attack when he's out of Washington. There's an outside chance that the plans for these overseas trips are an elaborate smokescreen to fool everybody but my hunch is that they aren't. It's also unlikely the president will launch an attack as we swing into mid-December and Christmas approaches. That would be bad politics.

But look out after the holidays when everything should be in place, including the extra troops and their equipment. Some of you may remember that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger unleashed the B-52s for the "Christmas Bombing" of North Vietnam on Dec. 26, 1971, as a way of forcing the other side to get serious at the negotiating table.

The only thing Bush will need is a trigger, or pretext, to give the attack order.

Maybe Saddam Hussein will be silly enough to give the president the pretext he needs, though that seems unlikely. For more than two months now, the Iraqi leader has been cagey enough not to give anybody an excuse to attack him. There's no reason for him to change tactics now.

Maybe Bush will have to look real hard for his own pretext. President Johnson did that in 1964 when he came up with something known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident that got the United States into the Vietnam war in a big way.

Whatever the pretext, Bush and the Saudi Arabians hosting most of the U.S. troops would like to get the war over with by the end of February so that the American soldiers can start returning home before March, when Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, begins.

The Saudis, keepers of Islam's holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, have been taking a lot of heat from their fellow Moslems for inviting in foreign infidels to help protect the country. They'd like nothing better than to have the fighting over and some of those foreigners, Americans especially, on their way home before the Islamic pilgrims start arriving.

To finish the fighting in four or five weeks, the United States and its allies will have to go in massively and all at once _ none of the gradual escalation business like Vietnam. This is the way all of Bush's generals want it done _ fast and hard _ and the president seems to be in complete agreement. That kind of warfare builds up casualty figures real fast, especially in desert terrain like the gulf region where everything is out in the open.

Certainly Bush would like to get this over with just as quickly as the Saudis. Ideally, he'd like it to be finished before the Air Force transports start coming back with a steady stream of flag-draped coffins. That's probably hoping for too much.

So those are the predictions. They represent what the situation looks like at the beginning of November. Let's hope the situation changes over the coming weeks. We'll all be a lot better off if I'm wrong.

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