Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Iraq War: Three Years On and No End In Sight

The president and vice president got it exactly wrong today on the third anniversary of the war in Iraq by stubbornly claiming that their strategy is working.

In fact, George Bush and Dick Cheney sounded frighteningly similar themes as they had on the first anniversary when things were going much better, which confirms that they haven't learned jack, while Ayad Allawi, the former interim Iraqi prime minister, stated that "were are in a civil war" and that his country was nearing "a point of not return."

A New York Times editorial noting the anniversary reflected how little things have changed in Washington while practically everything has changed -- and changed for the worse -- in Iraq:

Three years ago, the United States invaded Iraq. We can all run the story through our minds: Shock and Awe, Coalition of the Willing, Mission Accomplished, looting, "Stuff happens," no W.M.D., suicide bombers, purple fingers, blasted shrine.

Many who supported the invasion have taken this anniversary to argue that it all would have been worthwhile if things had been run better. They argue that if the coalition forces had been large enough to actually secure the country, to keep insurgents from raiding Saddam Hussein's ammunition depots, to give the people a sense of safety, the country might well be on the road to a hopeful future.

We doubt it. The last three years have shown how little our national leaders understood Iraq, and have reminded us how badly attempts at liberation from the outside have gone in the past. Given where we are now, the question of whether a botched invasion created a lost opportunity might be moot, except for one thing. The man who did the botching, Donald Rumsfeld, is still the secretary of defense.

The generals on the ground understood what a disaster they were creating in the pell-mell race to Baghdad, which left in its wake an entire country full of places where Saddam Hussein's loyalists could regroup and prepare to carry on a permanent war against the Americans and their fellow Iraqis. As the new book "Cobra II" by Michael Gordon of The Times and Bernard Trainor underscores, the generals in the field were overruled by directives from Washington, where military decisions were being made by men who were guided not by reality, but by their own beloved myths about what Iraq was like and how the war was going to be won.

Chances are that at the time George W. Bush did not have an inkling of how badly he was being served by the decision makers at the Pentagon. But the fact that Mr. Rumsfeld continues to hold his job tells us that Mr. Bush doesn't care, that he prefers living in the same dream world that his secretary of defense inhabits.

In their wishful thinking, Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld undoubtedly tell themselves what they tell us: that the Iraqi people are better off than they were under the brutal dictator, that the Iraqi security forces are gradually learning how to take over defense of their own country and that a unified government is still a good possibility. It's true that many Iraqis are better off. Others are in far worse straits — their homes have been ruined, their relatives killed, their jobs evaporated and their ability to walk the streets in safety obliterated. Women's rights are being threatened in the south, and sectarian warfare has put families with mixed Shiite-Sunni ancestry at risk in their own neighborhoods. It is hard to quantify relative degrees of misery and pain in these circumstances. But unlike the horrors of Saddam Hussein, the horrors of the present can be laid at America's doorstep.

If the mission in Iraq was to create a stable democracy in the heart of the Middle East and inspire neighboring countries to follow the same path, the results have been crushingly bad — unless Mr. Bush regards the election of Palestinian terrorists as the leaders in Gaza and the West Bank as a step forward. Iran is extending its sway by the hour. In Afghanistan, American forces are too thin to do much more than protect the central government in downtown Kabul.

The idea that Iraqi security forces are poised to take over the job of protecting the people in a unified country is almost ludicrous. Many of those forces are actually sectarian militias that have been armed by the coalition forces, but not changed by them. So far, attempts at creating a government that could bring the country some modicum of stability have fallen apart. There are no leaders with the strength or credibility or even desire to rally anyone but their own co-religionists or ethnic group.

When Americans ask themselves whether anything has been accomplished in Iraq, they do take note that there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. That has been an enormous blessing, for which law enforcement officials can offer no explanation other than somewhat perplexed guesses. It's possible that the chaos in Iraq has distracted Al Qaeda, diverting its energy to fomenting civil war between Sunnis and Shiites in the heart of the Middle East. If that is so, we may have bought short-term peace while creating a training ground for terrorists and a no man's land where they can operate with impunity.

The Iraq debacle ought to serve as a humbling lesson for future generations of American leaders — although, if our leaders were capable of being humbled, they could have simply looked back to Vietnam. For the present, our goal must be to minimize the damage, through the urgent diplomacy of the current ambassador and forceful reminders that American forces are not prepared to remain for one day in a country whose leaders prefer civil war to peaceful compromise.

While we are distracted by picking up the pieces, there is no time to imagine what the world might be like if George Bush had chosen to see things as they were instead of how he wanted them to be three years ago. History will have more time to consider the question.


So much for opinion. The Times has periodically published updates to a statistics heavy graphic by two Brookings Institute fellows that breaks down the war and Iraq into multiple catagories such as fatality rates, oil production, unemployment, and so on.

As you would expect, the latest update is not particularly rosy, but there are a few bright spots, notably that U.S. troop and Iraqi security force fatalities have declined. But as is all too obvious, civilian casualties are worse than at any time since the invasion.

The intro text is here. Make sure you click on the link to the graphic, as well.


The ever upbeat defense secretary writes in a Washington Post op-ed piece that the terrorists are losing and therefore the Iraq war will be won. His regular comparisons of the war and World War II churn my historian's stomach because the conflicts were so very different, but he does offer an analogy that is more or less appropriate:
Consider that if we retreat now, there is every reason to believe Saddamists and terrorists will fill the vacuum -- and the free world might not have the will to face them again. Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis. It would be as great a disgrace as if we had asked the liberated nations of Eastern Europe to return to Soviet domination because it was too hard or too tough or we didn't have the patience to work with them as they built free countries.

1 comment:

Mark said...

You sent me an e-mail asking me to comment on how I think the world has changed since the advent of the war in Iraq.

I wasn't going to comment at your place, but, after reading your profile, and seeing that you have impressive credentials, I am so flattered that you deem my opinion worthy of soliciting, I will leave a comment and hope you don't beat me up too bad over it.

I don't think you'll like my reply, but here it is, for what it's worth:

I don't know.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, "All I know is what I read in the papers, and on blogs, amd hear on the radio and televison". My view of the world is pretty much confined to my little corner of western Maryland and central Pennsylvania.

With that in mind, I can only speak for myself.

I've changed. I am more aware of how tenous a hold we have on our own mortality. But it wasn't the war that changed me so much as the attacks on September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized we are vunerable to outside forces of absolute evil. No more thinking that we, as Americans, are unassailable.

I think that fighting this war is essential to the overall safety of Americans. Consider how much worse things would be if we hadn't mounted an assault on the forces of evil in the middle east. How many more 9/11 type attacks would there have been here in America?

I also think, that even if Bush had lost the election and Kerry was now our President, we would still be waging war against terrorism. In spite of what Kerry and the other Democrats who now say they oppose the war say, I think in a time of crisis such as this, Americans who love freedom rise to the defense of the country.

Even Liberal Democrats.

The present opposition to the war they are displaying is simply, as far as I can tell, political in nature. The Democrats believe that opposing this war is their ticket back to political majority in the Congress and the Presidency. And as long as they have backers such as yourself in the major media, they may be on the right track. I have stated before that the majority of the American people are more concerned with just trying to chase the American dream than they are with politics. And that is the hope for the Democratic party. That the everyday American stays ignorant about the consequences of voting for someone who may put America in danger.

I do think the world is safer since we removed the murderous dictator Saddam from power and put Osama bin-Laden on the run. When bin-Laden is pre-occupied with saving his own hide, he has less time to plan elaborate attacks on America.

Look at the tremendous strides the Iraqi's have made since we removed Saddam. They now have their own democratically elected government. Women are enjoying new freedoms that had previously been denied them. There is no more threat, real or imagined, from Iraq. We have gained an ally and a strategic position in the middle east.

I absolutely believe it is necessary to fight them over there to prevent having to fight them over here. I do believe if we cut and run, that it would encourage the terrorists to bring their Jihad to our shores. We would prove bin-Ladens assessment that we are indeed a paper tiger.

What leader, with only a modicum of common sense, wouldn't take advantage of what would seem to be retreat to chase down his enemy and finish them?

Overall, I would have to say the world, in general, is better off.

That's my opinion. You asked for it, you got it.

By the way, in your professional opinion, do you think I could make it as a bonafide colimnist?