Three years in: The War in Iraq doesn’t even have the dignity of a name other than the “War in Iraq,” and after about the first month it has been a war of attrition. Wars of attrition are dispiriting as hell: the cost in lives and treasure piles up, atrocities and resentments accumulate on all sides, idealism drains down into deep-worn ruts of reflexive behavior, civilian populations on all sides lose patience and despair, and the causes either turn opaque or to fanaticism while entropy squeezes the whole affair in its rusty hands.
When you are an occupying force, when you strive to build positive change, your opposition simply has to outlast you, to prevent the chaos from congealing into something recognizable as progress, something to hang your hope hat on.
It began with a victory march in 2003, a white-hot razor operation through buttery opposition right up to the palace doors of the murderous despot Saddam Hussein, and Bush adminsitration planners and their cheerleaders crowed and strutted, their plumage high, the first Gulf War finally won, their hubris rising in a cloud utterly guaranteed to offend the Geometry of the Universe.
For all the effectiveness of the original shock and awe sweep to Baghdad, the planners and foreseers hadn’t quite got around to planning or foreseeing what to do with victory’s child once delivered. The “victors” performed ancient rituals of territorial acquisition while simultaneously denying that any territory had been acquired; they presumed a simple “us” vs. “them” conflict had clearly, almost comically, resulted in a big “W” for the “us” team on the scoreboard, even though what had actually transpired was more akin to winning the pregame coin toss.
Immediately, disruptive forces from within (Baathists, Saddamist clansmen, resentful Sunnis, Islamists) and without (jihadis, al-Qaeda, scheming neighbors) burst out and in like respective boils and puncture wounds upon the envisioned grateful and acquiescent body politic. Chaos reared up proud and implacable, a retributionist dust devil here, a mad whirlwind of carnage and omnidirectional hatred there.
And so the time has passed: Since Bush’s “mission accomplished” statement almost three years ago, more than 2,300 Americans have died, the “insurgency” has inflated to the brink of sectarian civil war — many say well beyond that brink — and the president’s own standing has plummeted. A recent Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey found only 40 percent of respondents said Bush was trustworthy, a 22-point drop from September of 2003 – a direct result of the “credibility gap” (to resurrect a Vietnam-era term) between administration rhetoric and stark reality.
As Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) told the Washington Post, “We need to assume that things are going to be very hard because when you do, you plan accordingly. I am always cautious about always seeing things in the best light because war is not like that” and the public knows it.
The public, despite it all, seems to know a lot. Gallup polling shows a majority of Americans agree that U.S. troops should not be pulled out immediately and that Iraq is better off now and will be even more so in the future as a result of the invasion. So far so good for the Bush position, except 6 out of 10 say the war has not been worth it because, according to Gallup’s Frank Newport, the public does not see an upside for the United States. “The focus for Americans is Americans,” he told the Post.
I remain among the steadfast, some would say mulish, 40% three years on because only a fool would have REALLY bought the administration’s rosy scenarios along the way — uprooting a deeply entrenched totalitarian system and replacing it with a functioning representative democracy was never going to be anything close to “complete” in less than ten years — and, none of the goals or rationales that made “regime change” advisable three years ago have changed much in the interim.
The first question is: was Iraq under Saddam Hussein a threat? The question is not did he have WMD – it would appear, for now, that he did not. But the only reason he didn’t have WMD was because of an ongoing, expensive, and onerous international system of sanctions. The sanctions and military efforts and expense required to enforce them could not have been sustained forever. When they would have ended — either officially, or by the time they would have been breached by Iraq’s overt and covert allies France, Germany, and Russia — Saddam would have resumed his efforts to obtain and create WMD.
Therefore, in the medium or, without question, long run, Saddam would have once again become a threat just as he has been in the past: to his neighbors, his own people, and to the United States toward whom he has expressed nothing but hatred and contempt. Saddam was a dangerous malignancy that would have inevitably metastasized.
But, doesn’t that apply to all kinds of countries, including the other two-thirds of Bush’s own Axis of Evil, Iran and North Korea? Why yes it does, but for a variety of reasons practical, logistical, political, and diplomatic, it was simply not feasible to invade and overthrow the governments of either North Korea or Iran. Reality counts because we live in the real world – you do what you can when you can. We had to start somewhere and Iraq was the most reasonable, possible place to start.
This is still the beginning of the process: radical change of any kind tends to release competing forces that appear anarchic and that cost real lives, suffering, pain and resources. War always looks like an miasmic mess from the inside and while it is ongoing, just like a hurricane or a tornado, but there IS an end to both kinds of whirlwinds, though riding both out requires determination, vision, perspective, and some luck.
And the Iraq invasion has clearly met its corollary goal of fostering change in the region. As ’05 Lebanese intifada leader Walid Jumblatt put it, “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting [last year], 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world … The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”
Despite his many and manifest flaws, I give President Bush full credit for continuing to “see it,” too, in the face of severe public and political pressure, as evidenced by his speech at the City Club of Cleveland yesterday.
“The last three years have tested our resolve,” he said toward the end of the speech. “The fighting has been tough. The enemy we face has proved to be brutal and relentless. We’re adapting our approach to reflect the hard realities on the ground. And the sacrifice being made by our young men and women who wear our uniform has been heartening and inspiring.
“The terrorists who are setting off bombs in mosques and markets in Iraq share the same hateful ideology as the terrorists who attacked us on September the 11th, 2001, those who blew up commuters in London and Madrid, and those who murdered tourists in Bali, or workers in Riyadh, or guests at a wedding in Amman, Jordan … the best way to defeat this enemy and to ensure the security of our own citizens is to spread the hope of freedom across the broader Middle East. We’ve seen freedom conquer evil and secure the peace before,” he said referring to WWII and the Cold War.
“The security of our country is directly linked to the liberty of the Iraqi people,” he continued. “And we will settle for nothing less than victory. Victory will come when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq’s democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their citizens on their own, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks against our nation. There will be more days of sacrifice and tough fighting before the victory is achieved. Yet by helping the Iraqis defeat the terrorists in their land, we bring greater security to our own,” he concluded.
I agree and can’t see any other choice.