Politics & Policy

Good Enough

Sure, Bush hasn't handled Iraq perfectly. But who could?

Ten criticisms I’m willing to concede are valid about Iraq:

1. Iraq is a mess.

2. The failure to find WMDs is the material evidence (or lack thereof) necessary to make this the worst intelligence blunder since Pearl Harbor.

3. It was a heartbreaking mistake to allow the looting of Iraq to take place under the tacitly approving gaze of American forces.

4. It was a miscalculation in retrospect not to keep the Iraqi army on the payroll and confine them to their barracks.

5. Whatever the truth of the Chalabi weirdness, the notion that he would or could be the first president of a Democratic Iraq now appears naïve.

6. Abu Ghraib was, at minimum, a preventable public-relations disaster.

7. We haven’t devoted enough money and other resources to security in Iraq. Indeed, the pace of spending in general has been borderline scandalous.

8. The war has cost us dearly in the eyes of many nations around the world.

9. Iran and North Korea have gotten to be bigger problems since the war.

10. Bush has not done a very good job of communicating with the American people when it comes to the progress of the war.

11. The situation in Fallujah is particularly bad.

12. Sadr should have been killed a long time ago.

13. The interim council was…. Oh, wait, I already passed ten.

In fact, it’s pretty easy to pass ten. In other words, I don’t think things are going swimmingly in Iraq. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does.

Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t good responses to many of the points above. Very quickly (indeed, with a brevity that makes a mockery of thoughtfulness and thoroughness):

1. Iraq would be a mess today no matter what steps Bush took. It would be a different mess, but a mess nonetheless. Picking an arbitrary date and saying “It’s a mess now, therefore it wasn’t worth it” is silly, and could be done to every major enterprise ever undertaken, from the building of the pyramids to putting men on the moon.

2. Bush was hardly alone in believing there were WMDs, and given the convictions of so many over such a long period, he erred on the right side. His line about not being able to put his trust in a madman may get tedious, but it’s true.

3. Um…let’s skip this one.

4. Historically, armies are a hindrance to democracy and reform in the Middle East. In Iraq, the army was a source of repression. If we kept the army intact, we might have created a rival power structure that would hinder progress. And de-Baathification would have taken a huge blow.

5. Ummmm. Skip.

6. Abu Ghraib was terrible. It was also isolated and policed by the military before the press got wind of it. These things happen in war; the question is, How do the responsible institutions respond? Oh, and making someone wear panties on his head isn’t the same as cutting off his head.

7. Ummm…

8. Many of the nations that hate us for Iraq hated us anyway. The myth–oft-repeated by Jim Carville and others–that America was beloved by the world until the Iraq war or George Bush is hogwash. Anti-Americanism–in France, in Greece, throughout the third world–has been raging for a long time and actually increased with the defeat of Communism and on Bill Clinton’s watch. That’s not to say it was Clinton’s fault in any significant way. It was merely a fact of life. Iraq is an excuse for America-bashing among nations that clearly couldn’t be counted on no matter who was in the Oval Office.

9. What would the critics have Bush do? They denounced the invasion of Iraq even though that was easy, cost very few lives, and had substantial backing under international law. Similar actions against Iran or North Korea would cost tens of thousands of lives, would have no support from the U.N., and wouldn’t achieve much. Meanwhile, they denounce our policy of letting our European allies take the lead with Iran and our multilateral diplomacy with North Korea.

10. Anything Bush says is automatically ridiculed by a press scandalously hostile to him. Besides, it seems the American people get what he’s talking about. What bothers a lot of critics is that Bush isn’t giving war-room briefings to bloggers.

11. There are no good answers to Fallujah. Though those who ridicule Bush for being too quick to use force, need to account for the fact that he’s actually being quite, um, sensitive.

12. If Bush killed Sadr, Sadr would overnight become a peace-loving martyr in the rhetoric of Katrina vanden Heuvel, Dan Rather, and the United Nations Security Council.

And so on. Of course there are responses to these responses, and there are counter-responses to those. My point isn’t to say that Bush has done everything right. Quite the contrary. However, I have to chuckle at the notion that any of these mistakes were obvious to most critics when they were made. When you don’t have responsibility for anything, it’s always easy to shake your head at the consequences of everything. And when I say the above criticisms are valid, I don’t mean that I agree with all of them. Merely, I think serious good-faith people can offer these objections without being called Doves or antiwar or Bush bashers, etc.

But, since I’m on this topic, let me make two simple points. First, the Cold War was a conflict in which the actions of our enemies were essentially rational. The spoiled secular aristocrats who ran the Soviet Union didn’t want to get incinerated in a nuclear war. Their tactics and ambitions reflected this, particularly in the second half of the conflict. The Politburo became, essentially, small-c conservative: evil and tyrannical, but pretty darn cautious about not doing anything to lose their dachas.

Our current enemy is the complete and total opposite. Where the Soviets were rational and bent on self-preservation, the Islamists are irrational and relatively comfortable with suicide. Where the Soviets were dependent on conventional armaments and interested in diplomatic routes, the Islamists must use non-traditional, barbaric terrorism. Where the Soviets had defined borders and interests, the Islamists merely have a vast sea of people and nations to roam, their interests and assets submerged in shadowy webs and networks that mostly exist below the radar of the legal economy.

But most important: The Soviets could be deterred; the Islamists cannot be. It is the difference between fighting a bastard of a neighbor who’s got a home and family to defend and fighting a Charles Manson cult that wanders into town. I don’t mean to downplay the institutionalized evil that was the Soviet Union; I still think we blew it when we didn’t knock out Stalin in 1946. That was a blunder that makes not cleaning out Fallujah look like forgetting to put the garbage out. But, as a foreign-policy challenge, diplomacy with the Soviets was often practical and, needless to say, possible.

There simply is no diplomacy with the enemy today. So, that means going on offense. That means taking the fight to them. That means, in the short term, “creating” more extremists and terrorists by fighting on their home turf. But the point isn’t merely to fight them, it’s to pull the rug out from under them. The ultimate goal is democracy, of course. But the interim goal is to rationalize the Middle East so that, while it may still produce enemies, they will be ones we can deal with around a table, not a crater. And the short-term goal is to kill lots of them where they live, instead of them doing the same to us.

So sure, Bush hasn’t done everything right–never mind perfectly–in Iraq. Churchill didn’t conduct World War II perfectly every time either. Dunkirk wasn’t the sort of thing that happens when the war goes swimmingly. But Bush gets all of this. John Kerry doesn’t, in my opinion. Or, to be more accurate, John Kerry “gets” everything and therefore nothing. If the choice were between Bush and a better commander-in-chief, I might not vote for Bush. But that’s not the choice, now is it?


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