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June 2, 2006

Iraq Like Water Off a Duck's Back to Bush, Blair

by Leon Hadar

Compare the two American dramas that the world was watching last Thursday.

In Houston, Texas, two former Enron executives, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, were convicted of fraud and conspiracy for their role in the energy trader's collapse in 2001 and could end up spending the rest of their lives in prison. The jury concluded that Lay and Skilling lied to their employees, shareholders, and the public about corporate finances; that their actions should be considered as crimes; and that the two should be punished for that.

And in Washington, D.C., two current national leaders, U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, conceded that there had been a few "missteps" and "errors" in the conduct of the war in Iraq that mostly had to do with style and management.

But they insisted that the ousting of Saddam Hussein was justified and suggested that they had no plans to withdraw the occupying troops from Iraq. Mr. Bush expressed regret for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and some of his tough-talking comments.

Mr. Blair said the "de-Ba'athification" of Iraq – the clearing out of Saddam followers from the bureaucracy – had been badly handled. The two seemed to be somewhat chastened but unrepentant on the Iraq war.

We now know that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair led their nations into war based on false pretenses (nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi links to al-Qaeda) and without any serious political, economic, and military postwar planning.

The result has been a bloody mess and a country descending into civil war. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed, as well as a few thousand U.S. and coalition soldiers. At the same time, the financial cost of the war is now estimated at $320 billion and is expected to end up being higher than the Vietnam War.

And with all the misinformation and mismanagement that characterized the handling of the war, not to mention Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other human rights violations, the credibility and prestige of the United States around the world has never been so low, with Washington finding it difficult to mend ties with allies in Europe and the Middle East.

At home, Mr. Bush's approval ratings have sunk to some of the lowest numbers for any president in decades, while Mr. Blair's Labor Party suffered in recent elections. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 32 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Bush's handling of the war and 37 percent said it has been worth the cost. The support for the war in Britain is even lower.

American news publications reported last week that thousands of middle class and professional Iraqis, including many Christians, are fleeing the country. Their major destination? Syria. In the last 10 months, the Iraqi government has issued new passports to 1.85 million Iraqis, 7 percent of the population and a quarter of the country's estimated middle class, according to the New York Times.

The New Republic reports that according to Iraqi estimates, between 40,000 and 100,000 Iraqi Christians have fled since 2004, many following their own road to Damascus across the Syrian border or to Jordan, while many more have been displaced within Iraq.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch praised the role that Syria has played in absorbing Iraq's refugees. "Middle East governments should follow Syria's example in accepting refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence in Iraq," the organization said in a statement.

So… let's see: America "liberated" Iraq in order to transform it into a model of political and economic freedom that could bring about similar changes in neighboring authoritarian Syria, which was (at one point) targeted for "regime change" by the Bush administration. And now, members of Iraq's middle class and Christian communities, the most Westernized, educated, and professional segments of Iraq's population are fleeing to… Syria.

All of which gives a new meaning to Mr. Bush's "Mission Accomplished." Indeed, trying to weigh the devastation that the Bush-Blair duo have inflicted on their countries and the world as a result of the Iraq War against the damage produced by the Lay-Skilling pair is like comparing a splash your kid made in the swimming pool to the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Yet neither leader is going to be punished anytime soon for his "missteps" and "errors" in Iraq. Mr. Bush will complete his second term in office at the end of 2008, while Mr. Blair will be recalled as one of the longest-serving prime ministers in British history.

The only verdict they'll have to face will be that of history.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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