2006-12-08 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

If President Bush isn't sorry he took the decision to go into Iraq, then he doesn't have his head on straight. With the benefit of hindsight it looks like removing Saddam Hussein and reconstituting the Iraqi government was a lousy idea. Not because it was strategically or morally wrong, or because it was illegal, though some have made these arguments. And not because it was done for venal motives, supported by deliberate falsehoods, though this has been the refrain of the Bush-hating left as well. Mistaken intelligence doesn't imply lies, despite the outrageous claims of so many over the past few years. No, the mistake was thinking the thing could actually be done.

Bush, of course, can't say any of this aloud, even if he's thinking it. To do so would undermine his administration even more than the recent electoral debacle, which catapulted the Democratic opposition back to power in Congress. But surely he's got to be thinking about it. When the decision was made, there was widespread belief that Saddam was concealing an active WMD program and that he already had stockpiles of the stuff.

More, the sanctions regime, which Saddam was suspected of undermining through international bribery on a massive scale (later shown to be even worse than anyone imagined), was on the verge of breaking down. Without it constraining the Mideast tyrant who had twice invaded his neighbors (and annexed one), used poison gas, torture and assassination, underwritten terrorism abroad and at home, and was known to have actively pursued assorted weapons of mass destruction, it seemed like the proverbial genie would be out of the Iraqi bottle.

So, the Bush administration decided to act decisively and remove the dictator who had been festering in the Mideast since the first President Bush had decided to leave him in place after the Gulf War. Well, they've got to be kicking themselves now. Ronald Reagan went into the Caribbean island nation of Grenada for a quick fix there and the first President Bush handled the Noriega problem in Panama the same way. So the second President Bush no doubt figured the model would work again in Iraq.

Although there were reasons to be cautious, the events of 9/11 seemed to change the whole equation. We had been attacked on a massive and devastating scale from that part of the world and Saddam's regime was one of the destabilizing forces there. It looked seductively simple to cut this Gordian Knot by using the post-9/11 moment to clean out all the banditos, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and leave something better in their place. Of course it wasn't. From the very first, when it was clear the rest of the world wouldn't sign onto this project (as they had to booting Saddam out of Kuwait a decade earlier), the administration hit major headwinds. Still the Bush people soldiered on, making the case for Saddam's possession of wmd, despite cries of denial from many quarters (which turned out to be true). They negotiated with "allies," only to find themselves stymied by the French in the Security Council.

But, convinced of their case, they went ahead anyway. To nearly everyone's surprise, Saddam and Baghdad fell in record time. But winning the peace in a state many times larger than the tiny island nation of Grenada or Panama proved much more challenging.

Perhaps, in the first flush of our success in Afghanistan, when we routed the Taliban and had al Qaeda on the run, we should have looked more closely at this. Perhaps the administration didn't give adequate thought to what getting bogged down in the midst of a sullen and angry Arab population, rife with resentment of Western mores and might, could mean. Perhaps the administration just bit off one more country than it could chew in the aftermath of 9/11.

Of course we could still win this. But to do so, we would have to massively increase our presence and fight the war at a level that would ratchet up civilian casualties to unacceptable levels. So now the Bush presidency is foundering on this Middle East rock as we wait to hear the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and the President is forced to jettison one of the smartest guys in his administration, Don Rumsfeld. At the same time, former Bush administration advisors, including the much-reviled "neocons," are jumping ship as the President's Congressional allies have been consigned to minority status for the first time in a dozen years.

Did the administration make too many mistakes in implementing its regime change policy in Iraq? Every war has setbacks. If all the mistakes and blunders made in World War II had changed American minds in fighting that one, we'd probably be speaking German now - those of us left alive, that is. But unlike World War II, the Iraq War was one of choice, one we didn't have to fight. Bush could have let things stay as they were in Iraq after 9/11 and dealt with a resurgent Saddam, no doubt catching hell from his Democratic critics for not dealing decisively with the Iraqi dictator after that fact.

One can easily imagine John Kerry, in that alternate universe, sonorously intoning that Bush had failed to contain the poisonous Saddam regime. Would Saddam have gone after Kuwait again? Or tried to take on the Saudis? Or begun nuclear bomb building for real, once more? Or opened renewed hostilities with Israel? Perhaps he would have merely continued his policy of giving sanctuary and intelligence support to the dislodged al Qaeda terrorists (in the market for a new hideout after being ousted from Afghanistan). Saddam was a source of serious instability in the Middle East any way you look at it. Bush is guilty of trying to deal with him in a forceful and proactive way instead of letting him continue to infect an already toxic part of the world. But, in the end, wars are as much about will as they are about how we execute the choices we make. Abraham Lincoln worked his way through one blundering general after another until he finally found Ulysses S. Grant.

American civilian and military leaders suffered setback after setback in the early years of World War II before they finally began to reverse the Axis tide. The problem isn't that we are encountering difficulties in the Iraqi war, it's that we lack the will to surmount them. If it takes resolve to sustain a war effort and win, the U.S. is not that country and hasn't been, at least since Vietnam.

None of us can foretell the future but it ought to have been clear to the administration that, if Saddam couldn't be quickly and effectively replaced, Americans just wouldn't stick with it. And that's the problem we're facing now. It's harder than we expected because Iraq's not Grenada or Panama. It's a mid-sized state in one of the roughest parts of the planet, with a population that has little love for Western ways, values and institutions. Reshaping a nation of this size can be done but it requires the commitment to see this through and Americans don't want to be bothered. We don't like the daily drip of bombings and casualty reports. We want to get on with our lives. Iraq is an expensive distraction that most Americans no longer want have to think about.

There's no way to know how things would have gone if Bush had made a different choice, if Saddam had been allowed to remain in power to continue to torment us and work mischief in his neighborhood. Would the war against the terrorists who brought us 9/11 have been easier or harder to prosecute? But what's clear is that Iraq has been a monumental distraction and, because of early intelligence missteps, a lever for Bush critics to undermine his whole agenda. If Bush isn't kicking himself in the pants for making the decision to "go" in March 2003, he should be.

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