How We Got Here
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Five years in Iraq. 4000 American dead, with more to come. 10,000 others permanently handicapped; an unknown number traumatized. 90,000 Iraqis dead — taking an average of the high and low estimates, because no one is really counting.
And no end in sight.
As of this writing, a week-long battle has just ended between Iraqi government forces and the Mahdi militia of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, leaving hundreds dead in Basra and the Sadr City enclave of Baghdad. Hauptkommandant Bush praised the initial assault by Iraqi regular forces as proof that the government in Baghdad was functioning as it should and asserting its authority. Unfortunately, the Shiite-led army could not hold the line against the Shiite militia; Iraqi police looked the other way as the militia held the streets, and American troops had to take over the fighting until al-Sadr called another ceasefire. So . . .who’s in charge?
The news has also been confirmed during this anniversary that no more American troops will be pulled out as The Surge — as this escalation has been called — technically ends. 140,000 will remain in Iraq until the end of this presidency. With death tolls below where they were last summer, when The Surge began, the L. Duck administration does not want to take any chance of seeing them return to last year’s highs before the election.
At the beginning of the war, at the end of March 2003, over 70 percent of U.S. citizens polled supported the invasion. For the last two years, two-thirds of these citizens have told pollsters that the war was a mistake and never should have happened.
Well, it’s not as if they weren’t warned.
Back in November 2002, as the first whiff of war fever wafted through public debate, Atlantic editor James Fallows published “The Fifty-first State?” — an analysis of the possible outcomes of an American invasion of Iraq. Having polled various experts in the Middle East, Fallows cites the primary challenges: quickly building a new infrastructure to take care of humanitarian concerns, catching Saddam, establishing control, forming a government that create a framework for democracy and prevent the splintering of the country, rebuilding the oil economy, and re-establishing multilateral cooperation with Europe and the Arab world. Achieving all of these, the experts warned, was crucial for the Bush Putsch in Iraq to be deemed a success.
Anyway, they caught Saddam.
Noteworthy is the statement Fallows quotes from one Iraq expert: “If firm leadership is not in place in Baghdad the day after Saddam is removed, retribution, score settling, and bloodletting, especially in urban areas, could take place.” Fallows also acknowledges the minority view among the experts by quoting two supporters of pre-emptive war, Richard Perle and James Woolsey (remember those names), who view the toppling of Saddam’s regime as the first stage in the transformation not only of Iraq but the entire Middle East. Their view is endorsed later in the same issue of Atlantic by Robert D. Kaplan. In his article “A Post-Saddam Scenario,” Kaplan essentially argues for a “domino theory,” without calling it that: Saddam’s Iraq would be the first domino in an Americanization of the Middle East.
As would become clear over the following months, this vision was the neoconservative dream that helped propel the war, embodied most tellingly in a letter to President Clinton in January 1998 and follow-up letter to Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott in May 1998, penned or signed by Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, James Woolsey, John Bolton, and others.
Not surprisingly, in the march to March, opinions about invading Iraq broke down along ideological lines, although not always decisively. In the neocon Weekly Standard, the likes of William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer blamed liberal hatred of Bush and a wimpy isolationism for antiwar sentiment. The conventionally conservative National Review was only slightly more nuanced. David Frum, the neocon who as a speechwriter for W. took credit for the “axis of evil” line, argued in his March 17 essay “The Rush to War, and the Day After Never” that those who chastised the “rush to war,” like French PM Jacques Chirac and a few vocal but vaguely French Democrats, were playing intentionally dumb and blind to the manifest benefits of taking out Saddam (oh yes, and his Weapons of Mass Destruction) and thus guaranteeing a better world, especially in the Mideast — all because they hated seeing Bush and American power succeed. Frum concludes, “this ‘rush to war’ should be seen as the ultimate rush to peace.”
On the other hand, in the same issue Boston University fellow Andrew J. Bacevich warns “Don’t Get Greedy!,” taking the old-fashioned conservative view that an idealist “grand campaign” to democratize the Middle East would be too costly and unrealistic. In later issues David Frum and colleagues target such “paleoconservative” qualms as not just short-sighted but downright unpatriotic.
Meanwhile, on the left, worries about Bush’s rush to war were being balanced against the recognition of Saddam Hussein‘s tyranny. Writing in the 6 January 2003 Nation, Michael Massing considers “The Moral Quandary: Anti-Imperialism vs. Humanitarianism.” He acknowledges that if any dictator deserves to be removed forcibly, it is Hussein. But he quotes the hawkish Kenneth M. Pollack, who had just published a volume entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, where he argues that the time to assail Baghdad is after al-Qaeda has been defeated, and then only with the full support of the international community and the American public. Massing cites the best and worst-case scenarios devised by the Pentagon: best case-the war lasts a few weeks, with 1000 American dead; worst — the war endures months, with up to 10,000 casualties. He paraphrases Pollack again: “America would have to station up to 100,000 troops in the country for five or ten years, at a cost of up to $20 billion, and spend another $5 billion to $10 billion in aid.”
Okay, so we haven’t hit 10,000 dead Americans . . . yet. But we are looking at $3 trillion in war costs, by the recent estimate of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E.Stiglitz.
The January 2003 Progressive echoes the assertion that the antiwar movement needs to recognize the human rights problem in Saddam’s Iraq. Joe Stork, Washington Director of the Middle East Human Rights Watch, adds in his “What Solidarity Requires” that “a war is likely to produce a vast humanitarian crisis involving massive internal displacement, as well as refugee flows to neighboring countries. Some refugee experts have estimated that a million and a half persons could be affected.” Faleh A. Jabar, a former Communist party leader in Iraq turned research fellow at the University of London, writes in his “Opposing War Is Good, But Not Good Enough,” that an invasion of Iraq may well prove too costly or degenerate into chaos. The demise of the totalitarian regime, however welcome, will involve and unleash latent, uncontrollable institutional and social forces beside which fantasy will pale. . . . [I]t would be another tragedy for the Iraqi people.” He advocates instead an aggressive political offensive to splinter the Ba’ath ruling clan, along with an economic carrot.
Of course, as we know, all these warnings were ignored. On St. Patrick’s Day, 2003, the bombs started dropping, after which the troops went in, the flags went up, and the real slaughter began. By April 7, mainstream magazines like Newsweek, which had seemed titillated by the preparations for war, expressed surprise that there was as much resistance as there was in Iraq to American liberators. About the time Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” two things had become clear to journalists: there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, and there was no plan for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq.
The right readied its response. The lack of WMDs in Iraq led Jim Lacey, an embedded Time reporter, to publish “Hide and Seek . . . and Seek” in the June 16 National Review, in which he blames Saddam Hussein for leading the U.S. and its allies to believe he had such weapons. This excuse has provided some cold comfort to true believers ever since, although Lacey also adds the hope, tendered by some in the Israeli military, that Hussein’s weapons were smuggled to Syria before the war-a clear inducement to go ahead and invade that country. This conspiracy theory now lurks on the World Wide Web, by the way, where the years have grown it an appendix-to wit, that to avoid Saddam’s fate, the Syrians have submerged the WMDs in the Mediterranean. Even Faux News and the Bush League haven’t seized on this one.
During the chaos that followed the conquest, National Review senior editor David Pryce-Jones argues, in the 19 May 2003 issue, for “A Little Patience, Please.” Concerning the predicted bloody settling of scores, “Nothing of the kind has occurred.” Furthermore, the “electricity supply will soon be fully restored in all major cities, and with it comes clean water and the purification of sewage. There is no hunger; markets are operating. Gas stations are open.”
I don’t know if the magazine later printed a retraction. At least, as far as I perused I didn’t find one. Pryce-Jones hits closer to the present, however, when he adds, “American forces will have to stay for as long as it takes to preserve the peace and guarantee the workability of the new government.” He thinks maybe ten years.
Presidential candidate John McCain has promised a hundred years, if necessary. Current polls, admittedly premature, show that a plurality of Americans are willing to vote for him.
Pundits love to cite George Santayana’s remark that those who do not know the mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them. Unfortunately, as we see again and again, even those who do know the mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them. In such cases, the Cassandras have but one consolation, what Gore Vidal calls the four finest words in the English language: I told you so.