But a bitter lesson of Bush’s Iraq adventure has
been the realization that wishful thinking in war gets good people
killed, often many of them. Still, the U.S. Establishment that wouldn’t
face reality in early 2003 still can’t or won’t look at realistic
options for the future today. The only acceptable answer remains: see
“the mission” through.
In part, that thinking can be traced to the fact
that the politicians who started the war and the opinion leaders who
cheered it on are the same ones now insisting that the only choice is to
“stay the course.” These Washington insiders also may have learned that
catastrophes for U.S. soldiers and for the Iraqi people aren’t nearly so
bad for folks back in the safety of Washington, as they plan for holiday
ski vacations or other fun events.
Bush, the person most responsible for the bloody
disaster, is looking forward to an Inaugural gala and a second term
after smashing the record vote total for any U.S. presidential election.
On the media side, the same editors and columnists who didn’t ask the
hard questions in 2002 and 2003 are still holding down their jobs today.
As in the run-up to the Iraq War, these opinion
leaders are still making their arguments by using the phrase: “no one
can deny that…” For a long time, the context was, “no one can deny that
Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” Then, it became “no one can
deny that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein.” Now, the pundits
say “no one can deny that ‘the mission’ must be completed.”
Referring to an explosion in Mosul that killed 14
U.S. soldiers including members of a Virginia battalion, the Washington
Post editors declared, “Those who struck (on Dec. 21) hope a spectacular
and bloody attack will drive the United States out of Iraq, as it was
driven from Lebanon and Somalia, and doom those Iraqis who now risk
their lives for the elections. That’s why the only possible answer is
that of those brave Virginia soldiers: to pick up the wounded, pray for
the dead and return to the mission.” [Washington Post, Dec. 22, 2004]
Another form of this argument about pressing ahead
whatever the prospects for success was articulated by British Prime
Minister Tony Blair, who said, “whatever people’s feelings or beliefs
about the removal of Saddam Hussein and the wisdom of that, there surely
is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between
democracy and terror.”
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who
beat the drums of war loudly in 2002 and 2003, hailed Blair’s remarks
while acknowledging that the U.S. operation may still fail because of
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s incompetence and the lack of support
from “most Europeans, having been made stupid by their own weakness.”
Friedman incorporates the requisite praise for “the
troops” and their mission, even as he concedes they may be dying in a
lost cause. “What is terrifying is that the noble sacrifice of our
soldiers, while never in vain, may not be enough.” Friedman adds: “We
may actually lose in Iraq. The vitally important may turn out to be the
effectively impossible.” [NYT, Dec. 23, 2004]
Other neoconservative war supporters, such as
William Kristol, also are pointing fingers at Rumsfeld and the Defense
Department, blaming poor military planning and tactics for the debacle.
Clearly, the neoconservatives, who won over Bush to their dream of
violently remaking the Middle East and who dominated the pre-war debate,
now want to distance themselves from the consequences of their own
Instead of apologizing to the American people and
especially to the soldiers put in harm’s way, these intellectual
architects of the war – the likes of Thomas Friedman, William Kristol
and the Washington Post editorial board – seem more interested now in
protecting their careers and rationalizing their earlier misjudgments.
Indeed, if there were any serious accountability in
Washington, these characters would either be expected to resign or be
banished from their punditry perches. Given the abuse heaped on people
who were right about Iraq, such as former arms inspector Scott Ritter,
one has to wonder what would be the appropriate treatment for those who
While Friedman may call the Europeans “stupid,” it should be
remembered that the French and the Germans begged Bush for more time to
let UN weapons inspectors finish their work in Iraq, a recommendation
that might have averted this catastrophe altogether by demonstrating
that Iraq possessed no WMD. Granted, Saddam Hussein and his secular
dictatorship might still be in power, but the Iraq problem would almost
certainly be more limited and contained than it is today.
The corruption of the U.S. political process – and the acceptance of
lies as truth – also might not have advanced as far as it has. Though
the Washington press corps took no note, Bush used his Dec. 21 news
conference to repeat again the canard that Saddam Hussein had remained
in defiance of UN disarmament demands.
In fact, Bush’s own weapons inspectors agree that Hussein had
complied with UN demands that he destroy his WMD. Still, Bush continued
to insist that “Diplomacy had failed for 13 years in Iraq. As you might
remember, and I'm sure you do, all the UN resolutions that were passed
out of the United Nations, totally ignored by Saddam Hussein.”
In some Orwellian fashion, the quiescent White House reporters
presumably did “remember” what wasn’t true, since they have heard this
claim over and over again. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Reality
on the Ballot.”]
What may be even more absurd is that the same
clique of pundits and policymakers who helped send more than 1,300 U.S.
soldiers off to their deaths would have any standing to preach about
what should happen next in Iraq. After all, there were plenty of people
who warned about the dangers of invading Iraq.
The Iraq disaster was both predictable and
predicted. The problem was that the skeptics were largely excluded from
the debate. When millions of Americans protested the impending war
through massive street demonstrations, for instance, Bush brushed them
aside as something akin to a “focus group” that wouldn’t influence his
Administration insiders, such as Treasury Secretary
Paul O’Neill and counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, pleaded with
their colleagues not to plunge off toward Iraq, but they were attacked
for lacking loyalty. Other Iraq War skeptics came from President George
H.W. Bush’s administration, such as retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft. All
were ignored, dismissed or muzzled.
While most major American newspapers promoted the
administration’s WMD case and the Iraq invasion, some Internet sites,
like our own Consortiumnews.com, noted both the dubious case for war and
the virtual impossibility of pacifying Iraq, which resembled a
California-sized Gaza Strip. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Misleading
the Nation to War” and “Bay
of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down.”]
Early in the conflict, I was speaking with a member
of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had just returned from Iraq.
The senator told me the U.S. occupation would last 30 years. I presumed
I had misheard the comment.
“Do you mean three years?” I asked.
“Thirty years,” the senator repeated. “It will take
While stunning at the time, the senator’s
observation doesn’t seem quite so strange today. The Bush administration
has effectively admitted that there is no clear exit strategy. At the
Dec. 21 press conference, Bush acknowledged that little progress has
been made in building an effective Iraqi army to protect the U.S.-backed
A Washington Post chart reinforced this point by
comparing the Bush administration’s initial projection of U.S. troop
levels with later changes. The original projection in April 2003 showed
an expected decline in U.S. Army brigades from 16 to zero by December
2004. In other words, all large-scale Army units would have been home
That projection was changed in July 2003 to show a
more gradual phase-out of mainline U.S. forces. Under the July 2003
projection, the number of Army brigades should have been cut in half by
now, down to eight, with the last brigade due home Christmas 2005.
In reality, however, about 17 Army brigades remain
in Iraq, with that level expected to continue well into 2006. Only
slight declines are expected through 2007. No final Christmas homecoming
is in sight for American GIs. [Washington Post, Dec. 22, 2004]
What to Do?
So what should be done now about Iraq?
--First, there must be political space allowed for
a full and fair airing of opinions about Iraq. Until now, the pro-war
side has engaged more in baiting than debating, silencing skeptics with
ridicule and personal attacks rather than listening to thoughtful
critiques of Bush’s policies.
--Second, realism must replace these receding
mirages of success. The toppling of Hussein’s statue was the first
mirage of victory, followed by Bush’s May 1 “Mission Accomplished”
performance, the killing of Hussein’s sons, the capture of Hussein, the
transfer of “sovereignty,” and now the Jan. 30, 2005, elections. False
hope is no substitute for hardheaded geopolitical strategy.
--Third, Americans must recognize that the best
remaining possible outcomes may require swallowing American pride and
accepting some unpleasant realities. Stubbornness will only delay the
inevitable and indeed may make the inevitable worse.
--Fourth, the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq
appears to have been more a destabilizing factor than a stabilizing one,
while also breeding anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East and
elsewhere in the world. That means that an indefinite U.S. occupation of
Iraq may be part of a worsening problem, not part of a realistic
--Fifth, if American troops are to be saved, Bush
must admit his own errors and live up to his campaign promise in 2000 of
a “humble” foreign policy. Though John Kerry might have been a more
plausible supplicant, a chastened Bush may have no choice but to go hat
in hand to seek the world’s help.
The best remaining option for U.S. policy in Iraq
may be to arrange a phased withdrawal of American troops, replaced
temporarily by forces from Europe or Asia. Ultimately, there may be no
heading off the likelihood of an Iraqi civil war or some de facto
partitioning of the country.
Without doubt, Iraq faces many bloody years ahead
with the end result possibly another dictatorship or an Iranian-style
theocratic regime. If Bush had listened to wiser counsel two years ago
or if the U.S. news media had permitted a more vigorous debate, this
catastrophe might have been averted.
In a normal world, one might expect a leader who
was responsible for such gross misjudgments to resign or to be voted out
of office. But the U.S. political system is not functioning in what
might be termed a “normal” way.
Nevertheless, more flag-waving and more cloying
tributes to the troops are not the answer to a wretched, life-and-death
predicament. In the end, another costly lesson from Iraq may be to teach
U.S. leaders to follow the Hippocratic rule that is taught to doctors
when they assess a sick patient: “First, do no harm.”