September 9, 2003
in for More Than a Penny in Iraq
by Alan Bock
Bush looked calm, determined and resolved Sunday night as he capped
off Week One of the National Football League with a reminder that
U.S. troops are committed to a much more serious and deadly game
halfway around the globe. Still it was not difficult to detect a
certain sense of desperation in the decision to address the Iraqi
war and the putative war on terrorism.
president doesn't seem to have a lot of concern about keeping the
morale of the American people up. As befits a third-generation member
of a Connecticut Yankee family of national political players, his
attitude (though somewhat Texanized) seem to be that it's enough
for the leader to declare his intentions, and the peoples' job is
to follow confidently (if not blindly). The notion that it takes
a lot of explaining, continuous attention and a certain amount of
coddling to maintain support for a difficult course in a relatively
democratic society might not be exactly foreign to him, but it hardly
occupies most of his time or attention. He probably views that as
he's getting better, his handlers don't seem to think that the inspirational
address, the appeal to the big picture, to the significance of his
actions in the furtherance of liberty and American ideals, is exactly
his strong suit. So he has waited five months beyond his initial
rather premature and theatrical aircraft carrier declaration of
victory to explain in more detail why the rosy scenarios about Iraq
haven't exactly panned out – without actually admitting, of course,
that it looks very much as if the United States went into the occupation
without an especially coherent plan for the occupation beyond expecting
flowers from the Iraqi people and hoping for the best.
MODICUM OF HONESTY
give Dubya this much. Unlike the previous denizen of the Oval Office,
who offered serial insincere promises (by Christmas – well, maybe
late Spring) concerning when US troops would be finished in Bosnia
or Kosovo (they're still there), he's willing to tell the American
people that Iraq "will take time, and require sacrifice."
And he put a price tag (for this year) on the operation, although
like most government cost estimates that sound shockingly high at
first blush, it will probably turn out to be a lowball estimate.
it is reassuring for an American president to proclaim "we
will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary"
to achieve a still-undefined set of objectives whose achievement
looks to be measured in terms of decades rather than years now is
declaring Iraq now the "central front" in the war on terror,
President Bush sidestepped troubling questions that have been percolating
ever since the American invasion. Would Iraq be a "magnet for
terrorists" if not for the American occupation forces there?
Given the shaky-at-best connection between Saddam's vicious regime
and international terrorism before the invasion, has the war actually
increased terrorist activity? Has war with Iraq, and the perceived
need for long-term occupation, diverted resources from seeking and
fighting active terrorists?
just where are those vaunted weapons of mass destruction? Even if
some are found – remember that little two-day news cycle that had
them in the Syrian-controlled Lebanese Bekaa Valley? Hope springs
eternal – could anything resembling a credible case be made that
they posed anything like an imminent threat to the United States?
questions might seem like sour grapes and hindsight if not for the
fact that the president seems to have committed the American people
and a military that looks increasingly overstretched to an open-ended
war against a tactic rather than a concrete, discrete enemy – a
war with only the vaguest of objectives and no obvious exit strategy.
Bush's rather belated effort to explain it all to the American people
came on the heels of an especially bad week or two for the American
government's credibility in Iraq, and smells like an part of an
ongoing effort to try to neutralize the developing disaster in Iraq
before next year's presidential election. We had the news that the
Congressional Budget Office projects a federal budget deficit of
some $480 billion (and what do you bet that will turn out to be
a lowball estimate?) for this year, with deficits stretching at
least to 2012 or so.
last week the CBO estimated that given normal policies for troop
rotation and the like (at least normal until now), and the costs
associated with such rotation, the United States had the resources
to keep maybe 30,000 or 40,000 troops in Iraq on a relatively long-term
basis. That's a lot less than the 130,000 or 140,000 US troops that
are in the country now, and far less than the 300,000 to 500,000
that people who purport to be experts on nation-building think is
a more realistic number to accomplish what the government says (or
implies, it still doesn't have a plan it has communicated to us)
needs to be done.
then, of course, there was the bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad,
followed quickly by the mosque bombing and the killing of an imam
alleged to be a potentially helpful moderate. As Philadelphia Inquirer
foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin pointed out, in a column
that details other problems, "Without an integrated US plan
that sets out attainable goals and a time line for turning over
power to Iraqis, the situation inside that country is only going
to get worse." It was beginning to look as if Iraq was spinning
out of control. It was time for a little spin control from the top.
her column, Trudy Rubin laid out what might be viewed as the realist-internationalist
view of the matter. Although she was skeptical about the war during
the build-up, now that it's a fait accompli, she thinks we
need to establish order before getting out and handing the country
back to the Iraqis within a year or so. That means shipping over
electrical generators by the thousand, if that's the only way to
supply electricity fairly quickly, and pouring in tons of money
– "a massive infusion of funds" – to buy stability and
Rubin believes the effort to get the UN involved, however belatedly,
is a signal of desperation. But she also thinks "the amount
of money needed is too large, and the situation in much of Iraq
too dangerous, for foreign peacekeepers to handle." The UN
might be able to help when it comes time to organize elections,
but the United States is going to have to bite the bullet and pay
for the occupation and transition.
UP DREAMS OF EMPIRE
more inclined to agree with Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute,
who noted: "By remaining in Iraq after Hussein's ouster – with
no demonstrable plan for exiting the country – the Bush administration
has all but invited foreign fighters to join forces with Iraqis
frustrated and humiliated by a foreign occupation. The result is
an alliance of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers working to
kill Americans and any Iraqis aiding us. These actions thwart the
desires of many Iraqis because acts of terrorism postpone progress
lesson I draw is that while we can't undo the damage already done
by engaging in a war of aggression based on dubious (at best) claims
of the danger Saddam's nasty regime posed to the United States,
the best course is to get out as quickly as possible, recognizing
that we aren't going to be able to establish a model democracy (which
was always a rather paternalistic and condescending goal for a region
of the world with a history of civilization much longer than ours).
president's best course would have been to announce that with Saddam
gone (even though he apparently hasn't been captured or killed)
the danger that his regime posed to the United States has ended.
Since we never had any dreams of empire [the administration has
always claimed this, remember], and since we trust the decent majority
of the Iraqi people to handle their own country better than foreign
occupiers could, our job is done. We'll be available to help with
civilian infrastructure problems and to mediate possible minor disputes
along the road to full sovereignty, but our military will be gone
in three months. Before they go, however, they'll concentrate on
killing as many terrorists as possible.
the president and many of his advisors do seem to have those dreams
of empire – a benevolent empire interested only in helping others
to establish the kind of democracy that gets the State Department
Seal of Approval, but an empire with strategic aims in the rest
of the region. So the American people and the American taxpayers
– who are treated rather cavalierly as the source of resources for
all these Wilsonian dreams of universal benevolent domination –
get stuck with an open tab whose full cost will probably never be
acknowledged until secret papers become available 25 or 30 years
participated Monday afternoon in one of those conference calls with
journalists that are part of the way Washington tries to spin coverage
and editorial response theses days – in this case with White House
chief of staff Andrew Card. It was hardly reassuring.
Card did say there's "no reason to believe" a special
supplemental appropriation like this one will be needed next year,
but he couldn't make an absolute promise. He resisted a timeline
for an end to US troop deployment and stressed again that this will
be a long war, a different war.
I asked him what would be the signs of success, the guideposts or
criteria for knowing the US is accomplishing its mission, he reverted
to the standard line that in the wake of the war there's no threat
of Saddam-controlled WMDs, and that we know the regime isn't helping
or harboring terrorists any more (slipping by the question of whether
it was before the war). That was making a case that the war has
been a success so far, but he didn't elucidate how we might know
in the near future – a year out, two years – that the occupation
and transition regime was being successful and we could anticipate
a reduction in the US commitment.
my way of thinking, he was implying that the commitment is very
open-ended. It didn't sound as if anyone in the administration had
thought seriously about the criteria that would signal it was time
to end it.
Card accentuated the positive, noting that guerrilla attacks are
occurring mostly in the "Sunni triangle" between Baghdad
and Tikrit. He said most Iraqis are pleased that Saddam is gone
and in most of the country there are heartwarming stories to be
told about cooperation between American troops and the Iraqi people.
doubt many of those stories are true, although they're hardly the
whole picture. If they were, President Bush might not have given
the speech Sunday night (although with the anniversary of 9/112
coming up he might have).
all due respect, however, the president owes the American people
a lot more specific information. Optimism, determination and platitudes
are no substitute for clear guidelines about what would constitute
victory and a realistic estimate of when it can be expected. I resisted
the idea for a while, but it seems quite likely that our titular
leaders view the war on terrorism as this generation's Cold War
– a conveniently open-ended commitment to protect the world from
evil as the administration defines it, wherever and whenever it
appears, as a justification for beefing up the military and intelligence
services and wielding power in the world.
our newspaper, published in a relatively conservative area that
is expected to voter overwhelmingly in favor of recalling Democratic
Governor Gray Davis, on Monday received no letters along the lines
of "the president has explained it all again, so why don't
you lily-livered whining doubters shut up and get with the program."
We will probably get some in the next few days after the three critical
letters published today (Tuesday). But it's possible that the president
didn't succeed in reinvigorating the support-the-president-no-matter-what
troops, at least not immediately. Perhaps they're not out there,
at least not in the numbers there were during the first phase of
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