Sticker shock -- and awe

The White House and Pentagon insist they didn't try to sell us a quick and easy war. Then, on Tuesday, they did it again.

Published March 27, 2003 1:22AM (EST)

On Tuesday, the sixth day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, President Bush asked Congress for $74.7 billion mostly to fund the war on Iraq, based on Pentagon estimates that the fighting will last only 30 days. Simultaneously, both the White House and the Pentagon insisted they had never suggested to the American public that there would be a quick rout in Iraq.

There was Tuesday's press briefing with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers. The two denied that they had ever given anyone the impression that the Iraqi regime would quickly fold after facing up to the harsh reality illustrated by the "shock and awe" bombing campaign. The U.S. was "much closer to the beginning than the end," Rumsfeld warned.

But hadn't Americans been given the impression that this would be over pretty quickly?

"Not by me," Rumsfeld told reporters. "Not by General Myers."

Actually, on March 4, Myers had a breakfast meeting with a select group of reporters, where he stated, according to Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: "If asked to go into conflict in Iraq, what you'd like to do is have it be a short, short conflict. The best way to do that is have such a shock on the system, the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on the end is inevitable."

The media took that lead, and the much-heralded "shock and awe" campaign -- two days of 3,000 well-aimed and highly intimidating bombs and missiles -- led to great expectations. As the bombs started dropping live on ABC News last Thursday, Charles Gibson asked Pentagon correspondent John McWethy about "the heavy attack, the so-called 'shock and awe,' [that] General Myers ... said would be such a large concerted attack that the Iraqi regime would know that there was not much purpose in resisting." Would that come tomorrow or "might it come tonight?" Gibson asked.

Myers wasn't the only culprit. On March 16, Vice President Dick Cheney made a rare TV appearance where he did more than a little chest-thumping. Asserting to NBC's Tim Russert that coalition forces would be "greeted as liberators" -- a prediction that has proven correct in some places, and alarmingly incorrect in others -- Cheney allowed that the elite Republican Guard, and the special security organization "might, in fact, try to put up ... a struggle." That said, he went on to add that "the regular army will not. My guess is even significant elements of the Republican Guard are likely as well to want to avoid conflict with the U.S. forces, and are likely to step aside."

Cheney even went on to throw out the possibility that Baghdad would fall without any fighting. "I can't say with certainty that there will be no battle for Baghdad," he said. "We have to be prepared for that possibility."

Asked about Cheney's rather optimistic remarks on Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that "the vice president said what he said because he had reason -- good reason -- to say it."

Does that mean that the White House still thinks that the Republican Guard will abandon ship?

"I assure you, the vice president does not say things lightly," Fleischer said. "So when the vice president says something like that, he has good reason to say it, and to think it and, therefore, to say it."


Fleischer came to his daily briefing armed with three previous quotes from the president warning the American people that this would be a long war -- reporters were "easy to read," he joked. On March 17, Bush said that "Americans understand the costs of conflict because we have paid them in the past. War has no certainty except the certainty of sacrifice. If Saddam Hussein attempts to cling to power, he will remain a deadly foe until the end." On March 19, the President said that "a campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict." He then repeated that comment on his weekend radio address.

"The American people understand it when the president talks about the use of force, they understand that means that lives can be lost," Fleischer said.

In order to sell a war -- or "product," as White House chief of staff Andy Card once deemed the Iraq campaign -- any administration has to imply that the objective will be carried out swiftly, and with relatively little pain.

Public opinion, however, turns quickly. After the initial pyrotechnic display in downtown Baghdad and the gushing rah-rah from some embedded TV reporters, the ugly realities of the war were bound to catch up with the nation's inner Lee Greenwood. Images of dead and captured U.S. soldiers -- not to mention injured and dead Iraqi civilians -- combined with news from the front lines of dug-in Iraqi troops, and battles more difficult than had been anticipated, began sinking national morale. As of Tuesday evening, 20 American and 18 British soldiers had been reported killed, 12 American and two British soldiers were reported missing, and seven American soldiers had been taken prisoner. The Iraqi government was claiming more than 200 civilians dead; the U.S. military reported having captured 3,000 Iraqi soldiers. There were no figures for the number of Iraqi soldiers killed.

On Tuesday, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., told the Miami Herald that while military and intelligence analysts relayed to the Bush administration "the potential for stiff resistance" in the war, "the political side of this administration gave a strong sell on the softest scenario, of `flowers on the tanks.'" Graham, who voted against the war resolution last October and is now weighing a presidential bid, said of the Bush White House that there "was not very much willingness to talk about the scenario that seems to be coming to pass - resistance leading to a longer war and, unfortunately, potentially greater U.S. casualties."

Not surprisingly, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated a precipitous tumble in public opinion on whether the war is going very well -- from a peak of 71 percent agreeing on Friday to only 38 percent agreeing to the same question on Monday.

And yet, there was at least one high-ranking person in the White House trying to wax optimistic Tuesday. When the president made his supplemental budget request to fund the war based on what some still might call optimistic numbers -- fighting for 30 days or so, and an occupation of six months -- a senior administration official who was trotted out Monday night in order to brief reporters on the budget request explained that the figures were based on the fact that Rumsfeld "has right along said that he thought that fighting was likely to last weeks, not months." Within six months, the U.S. would see "the beginning of withdrawal of troops."

The White House did not return a call for comment about this apparent contradiction.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Iraq War