| Bush kisses a baby at the air force base in Florida. (Reuters)
Washington, March 27: Never before in the history of war has the progress of a conflict been summed up in a missing single sentence.
President George W. Bush did that yesterday when he struck a line off his speech prepared for delivery at the MacDill Air Force base in Florida.
Before the President left for the base, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer had briefed reporters that the catch line in his speech would be that the war effort in Iraq was “ahead of schedule”. But after what he has been hearing and seeing since Sunday, it appears that Bush knew better.
On board Air Force One, he quietly struck and line off the text prepared for delivery and replaced it with the assessment that the war schedule was making “good progress”.
The President’s aides were taken by surprise.
Television networks which were broadcasting since morning that the President would share his superlative satisfaction with men in uniform at the base — and the nation — had to eat their words.
The President’s action, pregnant with meaning, came as optimistic assessments at the Pentagon of a war lasting weeks gave way to more sobering calculations that it could, on the other hand, last months.
As the war entered its second week, a debate was raging within the American defence establishment: whether the ground forces with its stretched supply lines and capacity for quick reinforcements should take a break or push ahead at the current pace to Baghdad.
Secretary of state Colin Powell appeared to break ranks with the bulk of the administration once again when he told the National Public Radio yesterday that the conclusion of the war “may take a little bit longer, don’t know how long”.
Powell, however, qualified that statement with the assertion that “the point is we have had a good battle plan, and it is a battle plan that will succeed.”
The Pentagon continued to be optimistic in public.
Major General Stanley McChrystal said at the daily Pentagon briefing that “the plan has moved almost exactly with expectations. Fast where we expected it to be fast, gathering strength where we expected to do that. So the answer is, it is right on the mark.”
Cautious assessments also appeared to be taking the place of wild predictions earlier that residents of Baghdad would welcome the Americans with flowers and open arms.
Powell was asked yesterday if he expected that to be the case. “It remains to be seen,” was his reply. “I suspect it will be mixed until people realise that they are there to help them, not to fight them, not to go block by block, not to destroy their city.”
There are reports that an armoured cavalry regiment from Colorado and a cavalry division from Texas are being sent to the Gulf to bolster the forces already in Iraq and Kuwait.
The fourth Infantry Division, which could not land in Turkey because of a negative Parliament vote, has now begun assembling in Kuwait. Some planners here had argued that defeating Iraq would not need more than 50,000 American troops.
There is now about five times that number in the Gulf and, after one week of fighting, it appears that more men and equipment would be needed to get rid of Saddam Hussein.