July 10, 2003
Only a few months ago, the Bush administration
and its supportive media had painted a clear picture for us. Iraq, under the
tyrant Saddam Hussein, had weapons of mass destruction
that posed an imminent threat to the United States and its
allies. It had connections to terrorist groups and was part of an
axis of evil. Unless we acted swiftly, the smoking
gun might be a mushroom cloud.
The bright side was that an
American victory would liberate Iraq, ridding it of a Hitler
and bringing democracy to it. The success of democracy there would lead
other Arab countries to follow suit, until the whole Middle East was
Hows it going?
Its still early for
regional transformation, but there is precious little evidence that the
administration was right, growing doubt that it was even candid, and
heavy suspicion that it never really knew what it was doing. After what at
first appeared to be a warm welcome from the Iraqis, American soldiers
are now being killed, not in large numbers, but often enough that the
pro-war Wall Street Journal is calling for
larger-scale detentions (concentration camps?) to quell the
If memory serves, the war was
supposed to have something to do with the events of 9/11, Osama bin
Laden, al-Qaeda, and all that. The connection is now more obscure than
ever. The whole rationale for the Iraq war already sounds quaint. The
apocalyptic conflict has settled into a muddle.
The Journal points out that in May 1967, when
more than 10,000 American soldiers had already died in Vietnam, half the
American public still supported that war. This is supposed to be an
argument for hanging tough in Iraq.
But surely the real point is that
though many Americans loyally backed the Vietnam war for years, a large
majority eventually had severe second thoughts. Nobody who remembers
that conflict would choose to relive it, and the politicians know it.
This is why the U.S. Government
now sticks to easy wars against weak opponents, with low U.S. casualty
figures guaranteed. If Iraq had posed anything like the dramatic threat the
president described, he would have hesitated to attack it. He backed down
quickly from menacing North Korea when that country boasted of its
Second thoughts about the Iraq
war have set in. Some of these are loud and explicit. The Democrats want
to know whether Bush was given faulty intelligence about the supposed
threat. More radical voices simply accuse him of lying.
But more of the second thoughts,
as in the case of Vietnam, are quiet and implicit. Few Americans really
believe they are better off, or safer, because Saddam Hussein was routed.
They realize that there was no real threat. Whether Bush lied or was
misled or merely believed what he wanted to believe, it was all bluster.
Like his father in 1991, Bush
won an overwhelming victory at little cost and with overwhelming public
support due more to a diffuse patriotism than to any felt need for war.
And in the first Gulf war, the ease of the victory came as a surprise; many
expected Vietnam-level losses. On the other hand, the first President Bush
lacked the impetus of a 9/11 catastrophe that could make Americans feel
they were really in some sort of danger. That was a war to restore the
violated boundary between Iraq and Kuwait.
Later it turned out that the
atrocities ascribed to the Iraqis ripping infants from incubators,
and so forth had been fabricated. Victory brought no sense of
relief or well-being, and the presidents temporary popularity as a
war leader evaporated before the 1992 election.
In retrospect, the American
public may be more confused about the latest war than they were before it
began. They dont feel demoralized, let alone betrayed, but they
sense that the administrations story doesnt add up. If they
still support it, they do so with passive approval, tempered by quiet
doubts, rather than strong emotion. The fighting mood has long passed.
So its doubtful that the
Iraq war will be a real political plus for the president in the 2004
election. The most that can be said for it is that it wasnt a
Vietnam-sized disaster. Despite his bold rhetoric, Bush waged this war
with great caution, keeping the stakes low. But that also means that he
didnt really win very much.