After five weeks of air strikes and 100 hours of ground war, President Bush ordered General Schwarzkopf to end his attacks and halt his advance. Receiving reports of air massacres of retreating Iraqis on the Highway of Death out of Kuwait City, unwilling to risk a defection of his Arab allies, Bush I ordered an end to the war.
America agreed. Our goal had been to liberate Kuwait. It had been achieved, brilliantly. Saddam’s army had been evicted. The 500,000-man army of Desert Storm was ordered home. And the neoconservatives never forgave Bush I for not going to Baghdad.
A dozen years later, the son, at their fanatical urging, invaded Iraq, seized Baghdad, and committed America to building a democracy that would serve as a model for the Arab and Islamic world.
Three months have now elapsed since Baghdad fell. In those 100 days, the wisdom of the father in disregarding the neocons, and the folly of the son in heeding them, have become apparent.
America has 150,000 troops bogged down in Iraq as proconsul Paul Bremer is demanding thousands more to put down a guerrilla revolt that has broken out against our occupation.
Each day brings reports of new American dead and wounded. Our enemies are said to be terrorists, Saddam’s Fedayeen, the remnants of the Ba’ath Party. But Saddam had hundreds of thousands of men in his army, Republican Guard, and Special Republican Guard. We did not kill a tenth of these soldiers. Where are they now?
George W. Bush is in more trouble than he realizes. Indeed, his place in history may yet hinge on how he deals with what Americans are coming to see as an intolerable cost in lives to maintain a presence in Iraq when they are not yet convinced it is vital to our security.
The president spent a year convincing us of the ominous threat of Saddam—his weapons and ties to terrorists—a threat that could be eliminated only by an invasion and the death of his regime. But he has not even begun to make the case for why we must stay on in Iraq.
Why are we still there? If our goal is a democracy in Iraq, that is surely noble, but is it doable? What is the price in blood of achieving it? What is the cost in tens of billions? What are the prospects for success? What would constitute indices of failure, at which point we would write off the investment? What is our exit strategy?
None of these questions has been answered. What we hear from the president is “Bring ’em on,” and from senators who visit Baghdad, “We must be prepared to stay five or ten years.” But why must we be prepared to stay five or ten years? Now that Saddam is gone and his weapons of mass destruction no longer threaten us, if ever they did, why must we stay?
Iraq is not Vietnam where we lost 150 soldiers each week for seven years. But it has taken on the aspect of the colonial wars of the European empires, all of which were lost because the natives were more willing to pay in blood to drive the imperialists out than the imperialists were willing to pay in blood to stay around.
The truism stands: the guerrillas win if they do not lose. And they do not lose as long as they keep fighting, dying, killing, and raising the cost of the occupation. British, French, Israelis, and Russians can testify to that.
Americans sense, rightly, that we do not need to occupy Iraq to be secure here at home.
Bush’s father understood this. Is the son wiser? Why did Bush I stop at Basra and not go on to Baghdad? He had no desire to occupy and rule Iraq. He saw no need to. He feared that a U.S. occupation would alienate Arab allies, inflame the Arab street, and invite an Iraqi intifada. He placed a high value on the coalition he had stitched together to fight, and to pay for, the war. He was warned Iraq could split apart and a Shi’ite south sympathetic to Iran could break loose. He did not see a routed Saddam as a mortal threat. He believed Iraq could be deterred, contained.
On this, he was a conservative. Has not history proven him right?
His son, however—to invade and occupy Iraq and oust Saddam—was willing to shatter alliances, alienate Arabs, Turks, French, Germans, and Russians, have his country pay the full cost of the war, and run the entire occupation ourselves. Now, U.S. casualties, after the fall of Baghdad, are approaching the number of lives lost in the war.
Looking back, were Saddam’s weapons so imminent a menace they required an invasion? Or did the neocons get revenge on the father by leading his son down the garden path—to the empire of their dreams, now creaking at the joints?
What does the son do now, with the election 15 months away?