Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The annotated story of Iraq

I would be remiss if I didn’t somehow mark the four-year anniversary of the Iraq war. I’ll do this by simply updating an analysis piece that I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 19, 2004 – marking the war’s first anniversary. What follows are the most relevant excerpts. The updates, appearing as italicized annotations, speak for themselves:

Iraq has become an American obsession. One year to the day after our stealth fighters swooped in and dropped the first Bunker Busters of Gulf War II, we remain on the desert sands - committed to democracy yet bedeviled by uncontrollable events, losing a U.S. soldier a day and spending more than $1 billion a week. (It’s now three U.S. soldiers a day – that’s the average since December 2006 – and the price tag is now $2 billion a week.)

It has roiled our relations with traditional allies and deepened the ideological divide in our domestic politics. It is now a laboratory for a daring experiment in Western values, but it is also a fixture each night on international television, as shadowy insurgents harass our fighting men and women. At this point, two-thirds of the soldiers killed in Iraq have died since President Bush appeared May 1 on an aircraft carrier, backed by a giant banner that declared, "Mission Accomplished." (As of today, 96 percent of the soldiers killed in Iraq have died since “Mission Accomplished.” Prior to Bush’s flight suit appearance, 138 soldiers had been killed; the official tally, as of today, is 3215. Do the math.)

Probably half the American electorate is not surprised by this grim tableau; their conviction that Bush went to war on false assumptions, that he sent the military and a small coalition of allies into Iraq on the basis of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and an unproven link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, has inflamed domestic political discourse. (According to the latest CNN/Opinion Research poll, 54 percent of Americans say that Bush deliberately misled us into war; 40 percent disagree.) Some of our allies are similarly incensed; twice in the last week, political leaders in Spain and Poland have suggested they were misled when they signed on to the coalition. (Spain has since pulled out.)

Iraq will surely dominate much of the 2004 campaign, not just because the anti-Bush forces…will seek to parlay the war into a Bush defeat, but because the equally impassioned pro-Bush forces will invoke Iraq as a testament to the President's prowess as a war leader in the age of terrorism. And, buoyed by strong poll support, the Bush advertising team is trumpeting that theme. (In 2007, we have yet to see any of the ’08 GOP contenders invoke Iraq as a testament to the outgoing president’s prowess as a leader in the age of terrorism. On the contrary, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney prefer to mention Iraq as little as possible.)

As recently as last Sunday [March 14, 2004], the administration was still being forced to backtrack on its more apocalyptic remarks. When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld insisted on CBS's Face the Nation that he had never called Iraq an "immediate threat," his host simply read from the public record. Rumsfeld indeed had stated, referring to Hussein, that "no terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people." Rumsfeld's response, according to the CBS transcript: "Mm-hmmm. It, my view of, of the situation was that he, he had, we, we believe, the best intelligence that we had and other countries had and that, that we believed and we still do not know, we will know." (McCain recently called Rumsfeld “one of the worst secretaries of Defense in history,” and that’s arguably true, at least with respect to Rumsfeld’s creative use of syntax. Meanwhile, however, we’re still waiting for proof about that “immediate threat.”)

Americans still support the decision to wage war - in one bipartisan survey, by 64 to 32 percent - despite a broad belief that Bush either "exaggerated information" or "deliberately misled people." Bush's political team has obviously harvested the same numbers, because he is standing for reelection as wartime president without apology - as yesterday's war-anniversary speech clearly demonstrates. (Today, those poll numbers are roughly reversed; the latest Gallup survey says that 59 percent of Americans view the decision to wage war as a mistake; 39 percent disagree. But, as Bush demonstrated yesterday in his fourth-anniversary remarks, certain themes from his first-anniversary speech remain in heavy rotation. Here he was in March 2004: “There will be good days and there will be difficult days.” Here he was yesterday: “There will be good days and there will be bad days ahead.”)

Iraq is still a TV war, but sanitized. The White House, taking no chances that viewers might spurn the war if they see the coffins of slain soldiers, has barred all camera coverage. Unlike the soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Panama, Grenada, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon and Beirut, the casualties from Iraq return off screen. Nor does Bush, unlike past presidents, attend any of their funerals. (Nothing has changed on that front; the “off screen” policy hasn’t budged since Barbara Bush, the president’s mother, first tried to articulate it on ABC News in March 2003: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths, and how many, what day it’s going to happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”)

There are ways to measure success. What's the price tag, for starters? The Pentagon's comptroller refuses to estimate the costs….What's the plan for taming the foreign terrorists who were drawn into Iraq because of the war? (A March 2007 Pentagon report now estimates that there are 1000 weekly attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq - a 150 percent increase since the spring of 2004, around the time my piece was written.) What happens if a sovereign Iraqi government takes power…in a climate of pervasive lawlessness? (We now know the answer to that question.)

Iraq will continue to test the power of our ideals in a perilous region, as well as the limits of our military muscle. (Today’s military leaders openly warn that our global military muscle is being stretched to the breaking point; in congressional testimony the other day, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff said that “our next-to-deploy forces” were not primed to fight another war somewhere else. In his words, “the readiness continues to decline.”) The Iraq obsession may well persist for a very long time. (That’s the last line in my ’04 piece. I wouldn’t change a word in that sentence.)