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"What About the Dardanelles?":A Historical Battle Tells Against Air Strikes on Iraq

Anders Hove

On February 25, 1915, the British Navy opened up its bombardment of the Turkish forts along the Dardanelles. The British line of command fervently believed that the Dardanelles could be forced, and Istanbul captured, "by ships alone," to use First Lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill's expression at the time. While the commander at the scene of battle, Admiral Sackville Carden, ordered minesweepers to clear the Narrows for his ships, the Admiralty and Foreign Office were giddily preparing for the imminent conquest of Turkey.

By all accounts Turkey's surrender did seem imminent: Intelligence reports indicated that ammunition at the forts along the straits was down to a mere handful of shells, and that the forts themselves were undermanned by ill-trained, ill-armed troops. "I'll go through tomorrow! Tomorrow!" bragged First Sea Lord John Arbuthnot Fisher upon reading these reports.

The British weren't the only ones confident of Turkey's defeat. The Turkish government ordered its capital evacuated, and began preparing for a forced retreat into the Asian hinterland. Bridges were mined and government documents destroyed. A mass exodus of civilians had already begun.

But it was not to be. After just over a week of naval bombardment and minesweeping, the effort to take the straits by means of naval operations was doomed. Ship after ship struck mines and went to the bottom, with horrendous loss of life. Admiral Carden was replaced after what appeared to be a nervous breakdown, and his successor, Admiral John de Robeck, widely believed to be a man of the most resolute character, also showed signs of spent nerves. The attack was called off. In London, members of the War Cabinet scrambled for political cover, firmly denying they had ever thought the Dardanelles could be forced by ships alone.

Meanwhile, the Turks sought assistance from the Germans, reinforced the peninsula, and returned their government to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. Britain's attempt to force Turkey's surrender by ships alone was over.

The Dardanelles attack was doomed in part by tactical errors and a lack of resolve. But the fundamental problem had been identified earlier by General Ian Hamilton: Ships cannot occupy territory, and they cannot by themselves compel the enemy's political capitulation.

The State and Defense Departments would do well to learn the lesson of the Dardanelles. The United States and its allies stand prepared to strike Iraq with a force of nearly one thousand aircraft equipped with the most sophisticated ordnance ever invented. Cruise missiles have shown themselves able to inflict relatively precise damage on targets hundreds of miles distant. The record of the Gulf War shows that aircraft have the capacity to inflict horrendous damage on Iraq's infrastructure.

Let the record also show, however, that previous air strikes have not brought about any form of political capitulation from Iraq. In the Gulf War, ground forces were required to take Kuwait. Since then, No-Fly Zones and isolated air strikes have impelled - but not forced - Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to make temporary concessions. But those concessions have proven remarkably easy to withdraw once the threat of air strikes has receded.

We have every reason to believe that as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power, Iraq will continue to work on weapons of mass destruction. Thus, as long as he remains in power, the United States will remain committed to conducting inspections in Iraqi territory. In the Arab world, the continual violation of Iraq's sovereignty on the part of the United States and its allies is, if not an insult, at least a source of discomfort. As long as Saddam Hussein remains in power, the sanctions will remain in force, American relations with Arab and European countries, not to mention Russia, will be strained, and the world will be deprived of economically-crucial oil reserves. Last but not least, as long as the current policy remains in force, the Iraqi people continue to suffer.

There are only three ways to avoid these unpleasant eventualities, and all three are political: first, Saddam Hussein could open his country once and for all to unconditional inspections, cooperate fully with them, and never harass inspectors again; second, the United States could withdraw its insistence upon inspections; or third, the government of Iraq could change, one way or the other.

At present, there are few who would point to the first two possibilities as in any way likely. While Russia and France may urge some sort of compromise between the two, indefinite continuation of sanctions and temporary accession to U.S. demands would seem to be the outcome if that course is followed.

Despite the unpalatable nature of this outcome, the United States has been slow to look toward the third option: removing Saddam Hussein from power. After all, President Bush called a halt to the Gulf War after 100 hours of ground fighting. Ground troops were removed and victory was declared, and indeed, we had liberated Kuwait and no other objectives were on the table. It was only later that protecting the Kurds and Southern Iraqis came to the fore, and by that time policy inertia had already set in.

There is also the issue of the Gulf War alliance: Would our erstwhile allies support a push to take out Saddam? The diplomatic situation is doubtful at best, with France and Russia objecting to even air strikes.

Given the lack of coalition support and dearth of ground forces, the United States is rapidly falling back on the air strike option. This time, Defense Secretary Cohen tells us, it strikes will be massive, comprehensive, and overwhelming.

The Dardanelles lesson tells against such a strategy. Air strikes cannot occupy territory, and they cannot force a permanent political capitulation. At the end of the day, Iraq may back down, allow inspections for a while, and once the pressure disappears we'll be right back where we started. A few years will pass, and the coalition will be weaker than ever.

A shooting war, as unseemly and perfidious it may seem after so many years of putting up with Iraq's shenanigans, may be the best option we have left. After all, our objectives have changed since the Gulf War. Ultimately, our goal is not just to see Iraq destroy its weapons, but to stand down and remove our forces from the region. These objectives cannot be reached by air strikes alone.