With each piece of bad news out of Iraq -- the latest coming two weeks ago as the American military death toll topped 3,000 -- I can count on a fresh batch of I-told-you-so e-mails from left-of-center friends asking if I’m finally willing to admit that George Bush’s decision to take out Saddam Hussein’s regime was a colossal blunder. For them and for the entire political left it seems, the issue is now resolved: Iraq is an unmitigated disaster. The tone of such e-mails is often somber. But their underlying glee, especially after the feckless conclusions of the Iraq Study Group and Democratic gains in the midterm elections, is unmistakable.
The situation in Iraq has taken a turn for the worse; that much is undeniable. But critics of the Bush Administration also want that narrow observation to clinch at least four other related, but distinct arguments:
1) The administration has committed many tactical errors during the occupation of Iraq: By now, even the President’s staunchest defenders should be willing to concede this point. What should be kept in mind, however, is that the people we’re fighting aren’t idiots. They react to what we do, and we try to react to their reactions. The war itself, properly construed, took roughly six weeks--from the American invasion to the fall of Saddam’s regime. The effort to establish in Iraq an exemplary liberal democracy, which would in turn inspire Muslims throughout the region to throw off their kleptocratic and theocratic yokes, was one of the grand humanitarian gambits in history, but, since it entailed a lengthy occupation, it was always the more difficult challenge. Criticizing Bush for not having an adequate “plan” in place from day one to accomplish such an unprecedented objective is like criticizing a chess player for failing to checkmate an opponent who’s making up his own rules. All you can do, if you’re that chess player, is learn the rules of your opponent’s game and adjust on the fly. For example, disbanding the Iraqi army after the fall of Saddam surely looks like an error in retrospect; Bush’s critics constantly ask why he didn’t foresee that cutting loose thousands of disgruntled soldiers would ultimately fuel the insurgency. At the time, however, the thought of maintaining a predominantly Sunni, significantly Baathist, deeply corrupt and sporadically murderous military to keep the peace in a majority Shiite nation must have seemed an equally dicey option.
2) The situation in Iraq is now hopeless: The obvious response here is that no one who argues this has either the security clearance or well-nigh omniscient worldview to make such an assessment. Given the dynamics that need to be taken into account--events on the ground in Iraq; behind the scenes maneuvering in the Iraqi government; the purposes and influence of regional players; the tangled religious and ethnic loyalties of the Iraqi people; the tangled religious and ethnic enmities of the terrorist insurgents; the mood and patience of the American public and their elected representatives--it’s doubtful such a determination can possibly be made. Suppose American military commanders set aside their postmodern squeamishness, realize that defeat in a just cause is the greatest immorality, and decide, as a William Tecumseh Sherman or a George Patton might decide, that the only way to extinguish the insurgency is to make examples of Ramadi and Fallujah, leaving behind nothing but rubble and ash. You think that might help pacify Baghdad? You think local militia leaders might want to make nice afterwards? You think we’d hear another squeak out of Muqtada al-Sadr? America still holds the ultimate trump card in Iraq, namely, the firepower to level cities. Even a serious public discussion in the United States of waging a less scrupulous war, of responding to the terrorists on their own terms, of training them to obedience rather than reasoning with them, would likely be enough to alter the political reality in Iraq.
3) Ousting Saddam was a waste of America's blood and treasure: Such a judgment is stupendously premature, which is the kindest word for it. Thoughtful history is written at a distance of decades, not in medias res. How many current critics of Bush’s decision to remove Saddam and occupy Iraq were also critics of Bush the Elder’s decision not to remove Saddam and not to occupy Iraq after the first Gulf War? How clever did Ronald Reagan’s strategy of supporting the Mujahideen against Russian forces in Afghanistan seem after the collapse of the Soviet Union? But then elements of the Mujahideen mutated into the Taliban, which hosted Osama bin Laden as he plotted the attacks of 9/11; nowadays Reagan’s strategy of supporting the Mujahideen doesn't look quite as smart. What’s certain in Iraq is that, in the not-too-distant future, American forces will begin to draw down. What will emerge afterwards is anyone’s guess. It might be an escalation of the current sectarian violence; or it might be the disintegration of the Iraq into three autonomous regions, along with the requisite ethnic cleansing; or it might be a widening of the conflict into a Sunni-Shiite confrontation, which would engage Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Turkey; or it might be, as columnist Ralph Peters has suggested, al Qaeda’s Vietnam since the Sunni Islamist organization cannot hope to control the Iraqi Shiite majority but also cannot afford to retreat from the battlefield; or it might even wind up as the first true liberal democracy in the Muslim world--since the alternatives are so utterly dismal.
4) The decision to oust Saddam was rationally indefensible and morally irresponsible: This is the name of the game for the Bush-Lied-People-Died crowd, the rhetorical pot of gold at the end of the left’s argumentative rainbow. But the threshold of proof is so astronomically high--a Bush defender need only show the decision was reasonable, not necessarily correct--that none of Bush’s critics has ever come close to making the case. Put yourself in Bush’s position and consider what you know in late 2002:
a) 3000 Americans are dead in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Also dead is the useful myth that the United States will respond to a direct attack on its soil with a terrible swift sword; the formula for waging war against the U.S. is now apparent to our enemies--just work through non-state actors and turn over a few usual-suspect corpses if the U.S. connects the dots afterwards and demands justice.
b) Saddam is in violation of United Nations Resolution #687 which ended the first Gulf War--to which the U.S. is a principal signatory and thus principal aggrieved party.
c) Saddam’s military is firing at American aircraft patrolling the No Fly Zone in Iraq and Saddam himself doling out cash rewards to the families of Palestinian terrorists who kill Israelis--and occasionally American citizens.
d) There is a sealed indictment of Osama from the Clinton Administration which reads in part, “Al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.”
e) A personal warning was issued from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Saddam is planning terrorist strikes against the United States and an unconfirmed British intelligence report that Saddam recently sought to buy uranium from Niger.
f) The head of the CIA is telling you emphatically Saddam possesses WMDs, echoing the consensus of every other intelligence agency on the planet.
g) Saddam has been jerking around weapons inspectors, thwarting their inquiries and intermittently kicking them out for a decade--which makes little sense unless he’s hiding WMDs.
h) There is incontrovertible proof of Saddam’s willingness to use WMDs on foreign enemies and even on his own people.
i) There are reports of thousands of Iraqi children dying each month as a result of UN sanctions as well as evidence that the sanctions themselves are collapsing amid governmental and corporate corruption.
j) Finally, there is a copy of the Presidential Daily Briefing from August 6, 2001 sitting on your desk titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” The intelligence it contains is sketchy--far sketchier than the intelligence you now possess about Saddam’s intentions--but the title haunts you. If only you’d acted preemptively in August 2001, if only you’d taken out bin Laden. . .
In short, given the information at his disposal, George Bush’s decision to oust Saddam looks altogether reasonable--though, again, not necessarily right. To argue otherwise demonstrates both ignorance and bad faith.
So what are we to make of the downward spiral of sectarian mayhem that is currently drawing Iraq into the abyss? The violence seems senseless to us . . . but perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps our enemies recognize that the great exploitable weakness of the American military is that, in the wake of Vietnam, the American public’s grasp of geo-politics runs only as deep as the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” This is a weakness every bit as real, and every bit as deadly, as a missile with a faulty guidance system or a tank that stalls in its tracks--and it will remain a real weakness until the American public is knocked upside the head a sufficient number of times to outgrow it.
What the degeneration of the mission in Iraq indicates most profoundly is that one 9/11 was not enough to crack through the platitudes of the late 1960s--which are deeply embedded in the universities, television networks and editorial pages of major newspapers. There remains, in such circles, the delusion that the jihadists are ultimately live and let live types, that totalitarian Islam will eventually just peter out, that the principles of the European Enlightenment will simply dawn on a billion Muslims without us cramming them down their throats.
This may in the end prove the deadliest error in geo-political judgment Americans have ever made. Members of the genocidally well-meaning baby-boom generation will likely go to their graves believing they “gave peace a chance,” having spared themselves the anguish of killing hundreds of thousand Muslims . . . and likely bequeathed to their children and grandchildren the anguish of killing scores of millions.
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