Amid all the stories about the ongoing violence in Syria, the most disturbing is the possibility that President Bashar Assad could either deploy the arsenal of chemical and biological weapons that his government claims it has, or provide it to terrorists.
There are suggestions that at least some of Assad’s supposed stockpile may have come from Saddam Hussein’s frantic, eleventh-hour efforts in 2002 to hide his own arsenals of weapons of mass destruction in neighboring Syria. Various retired Iraqi military officers have alleged as much. Although the story was met with general neglect or scorn from the American media, the present U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, long ago asserted his belief in such a weapons transfer.
The Bush administration fixated on WMD in justifying the invasion of Iraq while largely ignoring more than 20 other writs to remove Saddam, as authorized by Congress in October 2002. That obsession would come back to haunt George W. Bush when stockpiles of deployable WMD failed to turn up in postwar Iraq. By 2006, “Bush lied; thousands died,” was the serial charge of the antiwar Left. But before long, such depots may finally turn up in Syria.
Another staple story of the last decade was the inept management of the reconstruction of Iraq. Many Americans understandably questioned how civilian and military leaders allowed a brilliant three-week victory over Saddam to degenerate into a disastrous five-year war before the surge finally salvaged Iraq. That fighting and reconstruction anywhere in the Middle East are difficult under any circumstances was forgotten. The press preferred instead to charge that the singular incompetence or malfeasance of Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld led to the unnecessary costs in American blood and treasure.
But perhaps that scenario needs an update as well. Journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, is a blistering critique of the Obama administration’s three-year conduct of the Afghanistan war and its decision to surge troops; Chandrasekaran chronicles stupid decisions, petty infighting, arrogance, and naïveté. In an earlier book on Iraq, Chandrasekaran had alleged that America’s Iraq dilemmas were the result of a similarly bungling Bush administration.
So was the know-it-all reporter right then about Iraq, is he right now about Afghanistan, neither, or both? And will the media revise their earlier criticism and concede that George W. Bush’s problems in conducting difficult wars in the Middle East were inherent in the vast differences between cultures — fault lines that likewise have baffled even Barack Hussein Obama, the acclaimed internationalist and Nobel laureate who was supposed to be singularly sensitive to customs in that part of the world?
In 2008, we were told that Predator drone attacks, renditions, preventive detentions, military tribunals, the Guantanamo detention center, and the surging oftroops into difficult wars were all emblematic of Bush’s disdain for the Constitution and his overall ineptness as commander-in-chief. In 2012, these same continuing protocols are no such thing, but instead valuable anti-terrorism tools, and seen as such by President Obama.
For all the biases and incompetence of Nouri al-Maliki’s elected government in Iraq, the Middle East’s worst dictatorship now seems to have become the region’s most stable constitutional government. Given Iraq’s elections, the country was relatively untouched by the mass “Arab Spring” uprisings. And despite sometimes deadly Sunni-Shiite terrorist violence and the resurgence of al-Qaeda, Iraq’s economy, compared with those of some of other nations in the Middle East, is stable and expanding.
The overthrow of Saddam was also supposed to be a blunder in terms of grand strategy, empowering our enemies Iran and Syria. True, Saddam’s ouster and the subsequent violence may have done that in the short term. But how about the long term, nine years later?
The Assad dynasty seems about to go the way of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Bin Ali, and Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi. Syria’s great ally, Iran — which barely succeeded in putting down popular demonstrations in 2009 — has never been more isolated and beleaguered as it deals with sanctions, international ostracism, and growing unpopularity at home.
Who knows whether Saddam’s fall, trial, and execution, coupled with the creation of an Iraqi constitutional government, triggered a slow chain reaction against similar Middle Eastern tyrannies?
The moral of the story is that history cannot be written as it unfolds. In the case of Iraq, we still don’t know the full story of Saddam’s WMD, the grand strategic effects of the Iraq War, the ripples from the creation of the Iraqi republic, or the relative degree of incompetence of any American administration at war in the Middle East — and we won’t for many years to come.