Column for 21 January, 2007
“Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”
I owe George Bush an apology. Not Dubya, the current occupant of the White House, safely ensconced in his tight little bubble of unreality. I don’t owe him diddly squat. No, I mean his daddy, George H.W. Bush, Bush 41, Poppy. He was right and I was wrong. Fifteen years ago, many Democrats, including myself, raked him over the coals for the way he handled Gulf War One. Look at this guy, we said. He’s cozying up to bloodthirsty dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Red China and Syria just to put together some kind of “international coalition” against Saddam Hussein. Who does he think he is? And then after the war, we blasted him as a “wimp” because he didn’t “finish the job.” How come you didn’t take out the Republican Guard, George? Why didn’t you press on the last few miles to Baghdad? It would’ve been easy to take out Saddam. What are you, chicken? Yeah, we were idiots. George H.W. Bush, a veteran of World War II, knew very well that the first step to victory in war is getting the right allies. And sometimes, that means holding your breath and working with countries you would otherwise find to be morally repugnant. Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that; he knew he couldn’t defeat a brutal psychotic mass-murderer like Hitler without the help of a brutal psychotic mass-murderer like Stalin to pin down the Nazi war machine in the East. The First President Bush’s coalition was not a handful of token commitments of personnel, but a serious military alliance. Even the French committed naval, air and ground forces, including the famous Foreign Legion. By pointedly including Arab countries and giving them prominent leadership roles, Bush deftly prevented Saddam Hussein from making himself into a martyr to American Imperialism. When Hussein began wildly lobbing SCUD missiles at Israel, he didn’t inspire an Arab rebellion; he just made himself look even more pathetic and isolated. In fact, the only group that really supported him, the hapless Palestinians, ended up alienating their benefactors, the Saudis. Cut off from funding for their Intifada, the Palestinians had no choice left but to negotiate. In a very real sense, the Palestinian Authority would never have come into existence but for George H.W. Bush’s strategic vision in Gulf War One, though it’s unlikely he knew that at the time. As for “pressing on to Baghdad,” well, we pretty much know now what would have happened then if Bush 41 had listened to his critics. Saddam would have been overthrown, sure, but we would’ve lost most of our allies and Iraq would likely have collapsed into precisely the kind of bloody mess we see today. I still say Bush 41 should have and could have done more to protect the southern Shia and the Kurds from Hussein’s retaliatory massacres; we could’ve imposed a No Fly Zone over the entire country and sooner. But overall, he was right; any more damage to the Iraqi Army, which had nearly disintegrated anyway, and Saddam would have lost control of the country and a civil war would’ve erupted.
I was also wrong about the Iraq Study Group report. I thought, like many people, that George W. Bush would cling to it like a life preserver tossed to a drowning man. I should’ve known better. After six years, I once again underestimated the arrogance and fanatical ideological blinkers of this president. There was never going to be a “new course” on Iraq; only the appearance of one. Overwhelming public opinion; the devastation of his own fawning toadies in Congressional elections; the collective judgment of his father’s advisers—none of that matters to him. George W. Bush wants his war and he will have his war. Period. He will continue fighting it precisely the way he—not the generals and certainly not the Congress—wants it right up until noon on January 20, 2009, when this unspeakable disaster will become the problem of whichever poor chump takes the oath that day as the Forty-Fourth President of the United States. I would not go so far as to suggest, as some have, that Bush cares nothing about the troops under his command or that he was faking it when recently observed crying during a meeting with war widows; that’s just more asinine demonization. The man is not a monster, after all. I have no doubt he genuinely feels regret for the American soldiers, and likely the Iraqi civilians, who have died. The problem is not a lack of compassion, but rather that Bush is such a moral eunuch he simply cannot perceive any connection between his bull-headed monomania and the thousands of individual tragedies his policies have caused.
But Bush isn’t the only one living in his own private fantasy land regarding Iraq. Most critics of the war simply refuse to admit, to themselves or others, what we all know to be true: if and when they get their wish and all US forces are withdrawn, Iraq as a country will cease to exist, vanishing in a gory fog. If the withdrawal is gradual and orderly, we might be spared a repeat of Saigon in 1975, with helicopter gunships evacuating embassy personnel as Iraqi mothers desperately toss their children over the fences, but either way, it’s not going to be pretty. The “surge” is not going to end what is now an Iraqi civil war, but leaving isn’t going to end it, either. It’s not hard at all to imagine a scenario with a rump Iraq as a puppet of Iran, with a persistent Sunni insurgency and the Kurds in the far north simply declaring their independence, a move that could easily lead to intervention by Turkey, since they don’t want their oppressed Kurdish minority getting any bright ideas. In such a case, we will have expended much blood and treasure only to make the Middle East less stable and to increase the influence of Iran, a country whose President is only a few steps above Kim Jong Il on the “raving loony dictator” scale. The Middle East, the United States and the World will be scarier places after we leave Iraq, just as a series of disasters followed US withdrawal from Vietnam, culminating in Pol Pot’s attempt to murder his own country and the suffering of thousands of “Boat People,” trying desperately to flee persecution by the victorious communists. Right now, we don’t even have someone in the US Embassy in Baghdad who can process paperwork for asylum seekers. War critics are correct that Republicans have no moral right to demand that they “come up with their own plan” for “victory”; it’s the equivalent of smashing your mother’s china and then indignantly demanding to know just how she plans to fix it. But, the war critics should have to answer this question about the world after the last US soldier leaves Iraq: “Now what?”