It’s make it or break it in Iraq in 2007. Or so we are told, as America nears four years of costly efforts in Iraq. But how did we get to this situation, to this fury over a war once supported by 70 percent of the public and a majority of Congress, but now orphaned by both?
How did a serious country, one that endured Antietam, sent a million doughboys to Europe in a mere year, survived Pearl Harbor, Monte Cassino, Anzio, the Bulge, Tarawa, Iwo and Okinawa, the Yalu, Choisun, Hue and Tet, come to the conclusion — between the news alerts about Britney Spears’ shaved head and fights over Anna Nicole Smith’s remains — that Iraq, in the words of historically minded Democratic senators, was the “worst” and the “greatest” “blunder,” “disaster,” and “catastrophe” in our “entire” history?
Even with all the tragic suffering, our losses, by the standard of past American wars, have not been unprecedented, especially given the magnitude of the undertaking — namely, traveling 7,000 miles to remove a dictator and foster democracy in the heart of the ancient caliphate. This was not a 1953 overthrow of an Iranian parliamentarian. Nor was it a calculated 1991 decision to let the Shiite and Kurdish revolts be crushed by Saddam. And it was most certainly not a cynical ploy to pit Baathist Iraq against theocratic Iran. Instead, it was an effort to allow an electorate to replace a madman.
There were always potential landmines that could go off, here and abroad, if the news from the battlefield proved to be dispiriting.
First, George Bush ran for president as a realist, who turned Wilsonian only after 9/11, in the belief that removing Saddam and leaving democracy in his wake could break up the nexus between Middle Eastern terrorism and autocracy.
But his conservative base was always skeptical of anything even approaching internationalist activism. And his Democratic opponents were not about to concede his idealism. So when times got tough, the president’s chief reservoir of diehard supporters proved to be principled Lieberman Democrats and McCain Republicans — neither group a natural majority nor, after 2000, with any natural affinity for the president.
Second, after the relatively easy victories in Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, Serbia, and Afghanistan, the American public became accustomed to removing thugs in weeks and mostly by air and light ground-support. All during the 1990s, the more we made use of the military the more we cut it, until things came to a head in Iraq in a postwar effort that has been both long and confined largely to the ground.
Since the most recent conflicts had been a far cry from the mess of Vietnam, Democrats saw that the upside of regaining lost stature on national security outweighed the dangers of being charged with war-mongering from hard-core leftists. And so they outdid themselves and the president in loudly voting for Iraq — but apparently only as long as casualties were to be minimal and public and media support steadfast and overwhelming.
There were numerous reasons to remove Saddam — 23, according to the Congress that authorized the war — but the administration privileged just one, the sensible fear of weapons of mass destruction. That was legitimate and understandable, and would prove effective so long as either a postwar weapons-trove turned up or the war and its aftermath finished without a hitch.
Unfortunately neither proved to be the case. So with that prime rationale discredited, the partisan Congress suddenly reinvented itself in protesting that it had really voted for war on only one cause, not 23. And when the news and evidence both went bad, that lone reason was now pronounced null and void and hardly a basis for war.
Third, Afghanistan also loomed large. Right after 9/11, Afghanistan, rather than secular and once-defeated Iraq, was seen as the tougher nut to crack, that warlords’ mountainous graveyard of British and Russian imperial troops. But when the Taliban fell in eight weeks, and a consensual government was in place within a year, then by that optimistic arithmetic, the three weeks it took to remove Saddam might mean less than six months before new elections could be held there. Suddenly the old prewar warnings of thousands of Americans dead were forgotten, as the public apparently assumed the peace in Iraq would ensue in half the time it took in Afghanistan. This analogy has proven inapt.
Fourth, this war was debated through one election and fought through two. Given the prewar furor over Iraq, the miraculous three-week victory over Saddam lent itself to a natural tendency afterwards to be conservative, hoarding hard-won — but easily lost — political capital.
So, with each new challenge — the looting, the first pullback from Fallujah, the reprieve given Sadr — the administration hesitated. Understandably it was afraid to lose broad public support for the conflict, or to restart a war already won, since that would only incite an inherently hostile media that had been temporarily muzzled, but not defanged, by an astounding victory.
Apparently, after the announcement of “Mission Accomplished,” and leading up to the 2004 elections, no one wanted CNN broadcasting live footage from a new siege of Hue in Fallujah. In the process, public support for the war was insidiously and slowly lost, by an Abu Ghraib or a grotesque televised beheading unanswered by a tough American retaliation against the militias. The terrorists learned from our own domestic calculus that each month of televised IEDs was worth one or two U.S. senators suddenly dropping their support for the war.
Fifth, the Sunni border-nations wanted Saddam defanged, but never removed entirely. Muslim lamentations for Saddam’s slaughter of his own were always trumped by his usefulness in keeping down the Shiite fanatics, both in Iran and at home. But the enemy of my enemy in the Middle East is not always my friend, so the Shiites did not instinctively thank the Americans who removed Saddam, or who gave them the franchise.
The result was Orwellian: We allowed the downtrodden Shiite majority one person / one vote, and in exchange Sadr and his epigones were freed to kill us; we championed Sunni minority-rights and got in exchange Sunni tolerance for Baathist and al Qaeda killers.
Through it all, competent and professional American diplomats and soldiers who sought peace for both were libeled by both. Islamists, taking their talking points from the American and European Left, complained about conspiracies and expropriations on the part of those who had in fact ensured that Iraqi petroleum would, for the first time, be subject to public transparency and autonomy.
Sixth, Europeans who profited from Saddam probably wanted Saddam gone, but wanted the U.S. to do it. In the same manner they profit from Iran, yet want Iran quieted and the U.S. to do it. In the same manner they want terrorists rounded up, jailed, and renditioned, but the U.S. to do it.
All the while a Chirac abroad was whipping up the Arab Street, or a Schroeder was awarding financial credits to Germans doing business with the Iranian theocracy, or a Spain or an Italy or a Germany was indicting the very American military and intelligence officers who protected them.
The European philosophy on the Iraq war was to play the anti-American card to envious European crowds all the way up to that delicate point of irrevocably offending the United States. Then, but only then, pull back abruptly with whimpers about NATO, the Atlantic relationship, and Western solidarity, just before a riled America gets wise and itself pulls away from these ingrates for good.
Somehow a war to remove a mass-murdering psychopath — a psychopath with his hands on a trillion-dollars worth of petroleum reserves, with a long record of attacking four of his neighbors and of harboring and subsidizing terrorists — who, once removed, would be replaced with the first truly consensual government in the history of the Arab Middle East, ended up being perceived, for all the reasons cited above, as something it was not.
But if we have an orphaned war that is dubbed lost, it nevertheless can still be won. None of our mistakes has been fatal; none is of a magnitude unprecedented in past wars; all have been cataloged; and few are now being repeated. We now understand the politics of our Iraqi odyssey, with all its triangulations, and the ruthlessness of our enemies.
Not arguments, rhetoric, pleading, or money right now can save the democracy in Iraq. The U.S. military alone, in the very little remaining time of this spring and summer, can give Iraqis the necessary window of security and confidence to govern and protect themselves, and thereby to allow the donors, peacekeepers, compromises, and conferences to follow.
If General Petraeus can bring a quiet to Baghdad, then all the contradictions, mistakes, cheap rhetoric, and politicking of the bleak past will mean nothing in a brighter future.