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Think tanks wrap-up

  |   March 27, 2003 at 1:54 PM
WASHINGTON, March 27 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the first of several wrap-ups for March 27.


The Reason Foundation

LOS ANGELES -- Afraq: why Iraq isn't Afghanistan

By Jeff Taylor

The cliché is that generals are always doomed to fight the last war. The reality on the ground in Iraq sure makes it look like the generals have been doomed by their political leadership to fight the last battle.

The ease and manner with which the Taliban were kicked out of Afghanistan seems to have given the Bush war planners a false impression of how things would unfold in Iraq. The two situations were and are radically different.

In Afghanistan the United States could use Northern Alliance troops bogged down in a stalemate with Taliban troops as proxies for U.S. forces. Once Special Forces operators showed up to dial in some pillbox-plinking air support, the Taliban was on its heels. The only proxy forces in the field in Iraq, the Kurds, do not offer the same potential.

The Kurds hate Saddam Hussein, but they have no interest in marching on Baghdad. Their concerns are Kirkuk, its nearby oil fields in northern Iraq, and keeping one step ahead of the Turks. Southern Iraq features nothing like an organized, indigenous anti-Saddam effort. Consequently, coalition forces will continue to do the nasty job of taking out every Saddam loyalist by themselves.

This task is made more difficult by apparent shortcomings in some of the "force multipliers" the United States counted on. More significant than the Apache helicopters that were downed in southern Iraq is the fact that the other 30 in the attacking force were perforated by small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Iraqi fighters took cover in built-up areas in a manner more consistent with the U.S. experience in Somalia than in Afghanistan.

Should the Apaches not be able to regroup and inflict some serious damage on Iraqi forces -- and they'll not be able to do that until fierce sandstorms abate -- maybe the whole idea of an attack helicopter should be rethought. "Attack helicopter" is something of a misnomer anyway, since these craft were conceived as a way to counterattack Soviet tanks rolling through the Fulda Gap and into the former West Germany.

The Apaches never left their base after being deployed to the Balkans out of fear they'd get shot down; now they've been bloodied in their initial foray in Iraq. They are down to their last strike.

The reason coalition forces have to depend on elements like the Apaches to clear out opposition is perhaps the biggest carry-over from the Afghan experience: the belief that the United States could go into battle with a relatively light but fast mix of forces. Relatively light because, although there are hundreds of Abrams main battle tanks and their very capable partner, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, these are clustered at the tip of advancing columns.

Up front, of course, is where you want them. But that has left the coalition's long supply lines to be protected by thin-skinned light fighting vehicles that the civilian side of the Bush Pentagon has fallen in love with thanks to their mobility and transportability. The problem is these vehicles can be taken out with a rocket-propelled grenade. This is exactly what the Iraqis have done and accounts for the bulk of U.S. casualties thus far.

Ideally, an armored brigade would be available to range up and down the supply lines, taking out any menacing hot spots. Such an arrangement might come to pass once the 4th Infantry Division, which was intended to march in via Turkey, finally makes its way around Arabia and into the fight. If it does function in this kind of role it would be a tacit admission that the forces that went into southern Iraq were, in fact, too light.

Another parallel with Afghanistan that will shortly unfold is the use of tactical aircraft as supersonic artillery. Carrier-based planes in the Persian Gulf have just been given the word that their missions will switch from decapitation of the Iraqi leadership to ground support of coalition troops.

There is no reason why this approach shouldn't be as effective as it was in Afghanistan, but it comes with a price. Iraq isn't one big sheep and goat farm like Afghanistan. If Iraqi forces opt to hold out in urban or residential areas, air strikes, as precise as they may be, will still have to fall on these locations. This would run counter to the official Bush strategy of keeping the conflict far away from Iraqi infrastructure and civilians.

The lighter-is-better approach may soon pan out once tactical air strikes are brought to bear and Saddam-haters across the country finally see Baghdad under siege. On the other hand, an urgent call for more armor from the uniformed military would not be a surprise either.

Finally, one big change from the Afghan conflict shouldn't be overlooked: At no point were U.S. forces wondering if the Taliban were going to drop chemical shells on their heads.

(Contributing editor Jeff Taylor writes the weekly Reason Express column, and has been writing extensively on military matters since the first Gulf War.)


LOS ANGELES -- Mideast media bazaar

Why Connie Chung's loss is the world's gain

by Nick Gillespie

Among Gulf War II's casualties is veteran news anchor Connie Chung, who's just been given a dishonorable discharge by CNN. As the Chicago Tribune reports, "Connie Chung Tonight," already pre-empted by expanded war coverage hosted by the media somnambulist and golf nut Aaron Brown, has been cancelled.

While the show's failure was deserved on its own (de)merits -- in one of his rare accurate and unobjectionable comments, CNN founder Ted Turner last winter called Chung's show "just awful" -- it also opens a discussion of how the mainstream media are struggling to cover the fighting in Iraq in an age of radical decentralization of news sources and feeds.

Despite the blathering of media critics in the pages of The Nation and elsewhere, news junkies have never had so much journo-smack to choose from.

Such critics mistake ownership consolidation for ideological consolidation -- as if all of us don't have vastly more info sources at our fingertips than we did a decade or three ago. There's a good case that this is not an accident of consolidation but in fact it's direct result.

In a bid to serve larger and larger numbers of people, category killers ranging from Home Depot to Disney typically expand the range of products they offer their customers.

Even if you don't buy that argument, consider the fact that even Noam Chomsky, America's self-styled "dissident intellectual," has topped the bestseller lists in this dire age of corporate repression. That seems as sure a sign of a robust marketplace of ideas as one might possibly imagine.

Indeed, it's worth remembering that CNN came of age with its remarkable 24/7 coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, the first such conflict to benefit -- if that's the right term -- from fully functioning cable news channels. Even though the Pentagon tightly controlled news access to military sources and battle situations, CNN's live-from-Baghdad reportage vastly expanded the amount of information available to viewers around the globe.

A decade later, such an important supplement to traditional networks and newspapers almost seems quaint, as the number of easily accessed perspectives and news outlets has vastly multiplied. In the United States, trailblazer CNN has fallen victim to such creative destruction. It's now an also-ran, losing U.S. market- and mind-share to the relatively new Fox News Channel.

As the Tribune notes: "Through the first five days of the war, Fox News Channel has averaged 4.16 million viewers each day, compared with CNN's 3.74 million. Fox's audience was larger when the war began March 19 and each day through Sunday, according to Nielsen Media Research."

As Tim Cavanaugh suggested on Monday, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, which like Fox News Channel didn't exist in 1991, is eating CNN's lunch on the international stage.

More important than the rise of rival cable and satellite news channels has been the rise of the Web, which has had a powerful though widely underappreciated double effect.

First, it has allowed all traditional media outlets to effectively reach a global audience. Hence, those of us who live in areas not served by The New York Times on a daily basis nevertheless have immediate access to its pages, not to mention foreign sources galore.

Second, new media filters and sources -- ranging from The Drudge Report to Yahoo! to Salon to Instapundit to Where is Raed? -- have altered both what is considered news and how we consume it. Where we might have once looked for an authoritative source on a given topic, we now expect and demand multiple perspectives.

In the marketplace of ideas, as in any other sort of market, we're effectively haggling over truth claims. However tough such a "bazaar model" may be on established outfits such as CNN, it's that much tougher on governments and "official" news sources.

To be sure, the Pentagon has pulled a neat trick by "embedding" reporters with combat troops. While such a situation has resulted in much genuinely fascinating reportage, the camaraderie that inevitably results minimizes critical distance even as it ostensibly grants unprecedented access.

Yet whatever journalistic Stockholm Syndrome might result -- and there's no question that even sanctioned reports are often useful and interesting in their own right -- is dwarfed by the larger set of media resources now available.

Connie Chung's -- and CNN's -- loss is the world's gain.

(Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine.)

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