A Time Capsule Opened

Iraq War

I see that Bubble Boy was defending his war again today. He revealed that he expects troops to stay in Iraq as long as he is president. He also claimed he hadn’t wanted a war. Whereupon his nose grew several yards longer and sprouted branches.

Of course, the presidential schnoz was already formidable. Added to the recent “I didn’t say that there was a direct connection between September 11th and Saddam Hussein” by now it’s twice the length of a football field.

There are several good Iraq War commentaries on the web today that I want to link to and comment on. For now I want to look at just one, which took me back to another article written in March 2003 before the invasion — Fred Kaplan writes in Slate

A story by George Packer in the New York Times Magazine of March 2, 2003 (a couple of weeks before the war began), recounted a January meeting in the Oval Office between President Bush and three Iraqi exiles. The exiles spent much of the meeting explaining to Bush the difference between Sunnis and Shiites; they were stunned that he seemed unaware of the two groups’ existence.

This fascinated me. I found the article in the NYT archives; it’s called “Dreaming of Democracy.” In it, Packer explains the whole neocon “let’s invade Iraq and turn it into a democracy” fantasy. And he barely mentions weapons of mass destruction or homeland security or terrorism. Here’s the section from the Packer article that Kaplan talks about:

The longer you try to look at Iraq on the morning after Saddam, the more you see the truth of what many people told me: getting rid of him will be the easy part. After that, the United States will find itself caught in a series of conundrums that will require supreme finesse: to liberate without appearing to dominate, to ensure order without overstaying, to secure its interests without trampling on Iraq’s, to oversee democratization without picking winners, to push for reforms in the neighborhood without unleashing demons. It’s hard to know whether to be more worried by the State Department’s complacency or by the Pentagon civilians’ zealotry.

On the day that Saigon fell in 1975, the British writer James Fenton found a framed quotation on a wall of the looted American embassy: ”Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time is short.” The words are from T.E. Lawrence. Vietnam remains the shadow over every American war, but never more than the one we’re poised to fight, for no war since Vietnam has professed greater ambitions: to change the political culture of a country, maybe a whole region. Ever since Woodrow Wilson worked to put democracy and self-determination on the agenda at Versailles, this strain of high-mindedness in the American character has drawn the world’s admiration and its scorn. In Graham Greene’s novel ”The Quiet American,” which was recently released as a film, the title character is a young idealist sent to Vietnam in the early 1950’s to find a democratic ”Third Force” between the French and the Communists. The book’s narrator, a jaded British journalist, remarks, ”I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” Americans have never been very good at imperialism, or much interested in it; we’re too innocent, too impatient, too intoxicated with our own sense of selfless purpose. Several Iraqis expressed the wish that their occupiers could be the British again, who took the trouble to know them so much better, who wrote whole books on the Marsh Arabs and the flora and fauna of Kuwait. Afghanistan lost America’s attention as soon as Kandahar fell, and it remains unfinished business. As for Iraq, Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment, says, ”Our country is not remotely prepared for what this is going to take.”

If so, the fault mainly lies with President Bush. His articulation of political aims and postwar plans has been sketchy to the point of empty cliché. He has never discussed the human costs of war, nor its price. The Yale economist William D. Nordhaus estimates the military expenditure between $50 billion and $140 billion; far more daunting, his study finds, the postwar costs to the United States of occupying and rebuilding Iraq, along with the impact on oil markets and the economy, could run as high as $2 trillion. This is a calculation that no one in the administration has dared to make, at least publicly. Privately, some officials suggest that Iraqi oil will pay for it.

More than anything, the president hasn’t readied Americans psychologically to commit themselves to a project of such magnitude, nor has he made them understand why they should. He has maintained his spirit of hostility to nation-building while reversing his policy against it. Bush is a man who has never shown much curiosity about the world. When he met with Makiya and two other Iraqis in January, I was told by someone not present, the exiles spent a good portion of the time explaining to the president that there are two kinds of Arabs in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites. The very notion of an Iraqi opposition appeared to be new to him. War has turned Bush into a foreign-policy president, but democratizing an Arab country will require a subtlety and sophistication that have been less in evidence than the resolve to fight.

This was written before the invasion, mind you. Here’s another section:

The champions of Iraqi exceptionalism include the neoconservatives in the administration — Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Pentagon; John Bolton at the State Department; Lewis Libby in the vice president’s office; Richard Perle, who is chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a panel that advises the Pentagon — and numerous scholars, columnists and activists, most of them identified with the pro-Israel American right. In recent weeks, President Bush himself has appeared to embrace the idea as a geopolitical rationale for war. The story being told goes like this:

The Arab world is hopelessly sunk in corruption and popular discontent. Misrule and a culture of victimhood have left Arabs economically stagnant and prone to seeing their problems in delusional terms. The United States has contributed to the pathology by cynically shoring up dictatorships; Sept. 11 was one result. Both the Arab world and official American attitudes toward it need to be jolted out of their rut. An invasion of Iraq would provide the necessary shock, and a democratic Iraq would become an example of change for the rest of the region. Political Islam would lose its hold on the imagination of young Arabs as they watched a more successful model rise up in their midst. The Middle East’s center of political, economic and cultural gravity would shift from the region’s theocracies and autocracies to its new, oil-rich democracy. And finally, the deadlock in which Israel and Palestine are trapped would end as Palestinians, realizing that their Arab backers were now tending their own democratic gardens, would accept compromise. By this way of thinking, the road to Damascus, Tehran, Riyadh and Jerusalem goes through Baghdad.

The idea is sometimes referred to as a new domino theory, with tyrannies collapsing on top of one another. Among the harder heads at the State Department, I was told, it is also mocked as the Everybody Move Over One theory: Israel will take the West Bank, the Palestinians will get Jordan and the members of Jordan’s Hashemite ruling family will regain the Iraqi throne once held by their relative King Faisal I.

At times this story is told in the lofty moral language of Woodrow Wilson, the language that President Bush used religiously in his State of the Union address. Others — both advocates and detractors — tell the story in more naked terms of power and resources. David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who wrote the first two words in the phrase ”axis of evil,” argues in his new book, ”The Right Man,” ”An American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein — and a replacement of the radical Baathist dictatorship with a new government more closely aligned with the United States — would put America more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe the Romans.”

It’s an audacious idea, and part of its appeal lies in the audacity. It shoves history out of a deep hole. To the idea’s strongest backers, status-quo caution toward the sick, dangerous Middle East is contemptible, almost unbearable. ”You have to start somewhere,” says Danielle Pletka, a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. ”There are always a million excuses not to do something like this.” Who wouldn’t choose amputation over gangrene? If we have the will and imagination, the thinking goes, we can strike one great blow at terrorism, tyranny, underdevelopment and the region’s hardest, saddest problem.

”It’s called magical realism, Middle East-style,” says Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Exactly how, he wonders, would this chain reaction occur? Arab countries are stuck between autocratic governments and Islamist opposition, he says, and ”our invasion of Iraq isn’t going to remove those political forces. They’re going to be sitting there the next day.” The war, which is vastly unpopular in the Arab world, is far more likely to improve the fortunes of the Islamists, he says, and provoke governments to tighten their grip, than to ventilate the region with an Arab spring.

There were also Iraqi exiles — and not just Chalabi — promising the neocons that U.S. troops would be greeted with “sweets and flowers,” as well as “kites and boom boxes.” Weird. But plenty of people were making predictions about how the invasion would turn out that we can now see were spot on.

At Slate, Kaplan writes about whether the mess we’ve made of Iraq would have turned out better if other decisions had been made — if we’d sent more troops, if we hadn’t disbanded the Iraqi army — but seems to me that anyone with the knowledge and wisdom to have dealt successfully with the many postwar conundrums wouldn’t have ordered the bleeping invasion to begin with.

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  1. Steve M.  •  Mar 21, 2006 @5:21 pm
  2. Anonymous  •  Mar 21, 2006 @5:46 pm

    He lied about why he went to war. He lied about Social Security notifying employers that the SSN’s they are given are bogus: employers requested that Social Security not notify them unless there were over 250 bad ssn’s that one employer sent in, ie they prefer not be be notified that they are knowingly breaking the law.He lied about what the Democrats are supposedly meaning when they call for censure as if censure is not about his lawbreaking but about not listening in on Al Qaeda. He lied about mandatory spending and discretionary spending, accusing social security of not paying it’s way when it does and not mentioning his bloated defense budget and off budget wars. He didn’t reveal that Kerry’s line item veto remark included a dare to send it back to congress. He lied about a non civil war in Iraq. Yesterday he lied about us fighting ( in Iraq)the terrorists who attacked us. And finally he and cheney both lied about not reading the polls. If they were not reading the polls and did not care, we would not see them and hear them the past 7 days, frantically running around giving speeches, appearing on TV and doing press conferences trying to convince someone that their record does not say what it does: that they are lying.

  3. Anonymous  •  Mar 21, 2006 @5:47 pm

    It is as if Nixon said I don’t listen to people who say I’m a crook and by the way, I’m not a crook. My wife wears a cloth coat and we are going to keep the dog.

  4. maha  •  Mar 21, 2006 @5:59 pm

    Anon: Ah, the Checkers speech. If Bush’s rating get much lower, he’s going to have to come up with the Barney speech.

  5. Edward Deevy  •  Mar 21, 2006 @8:54 pm

    Frum was on NewsHour tonight pleading that Bush “stay the course.” He got lots of support on the same program from another Neocon warmonger who was formerly head of the CIA. I guess they have not yet come to terms with the fact that the war they peddled to the American people has been a total disaster. Shouldn’t there be some kind of tribunal to punish people who lie to get their country into war?

  6. Steve from Canuckistan  •  Mar 21, 2006 @9:03 pm

    I saw the news clip today of Bush telling Helen Thomas at the WH news conference that “he didn’t want to go to war”. The man is a complete slime ball.

  7. Britwit  •  Mar 22, 2006 @11:39 am

    Jeff Greenfield on the Imus show this morning made an interesting statement about why Bush called upon Helen Thomas. Bush decides ahead of time who to call upon. We all see him calling from a seating chart. Hell, he couldn’t even get one guys name straight.

    Jeff said that Bush wanted another opportunity to restate why we went to war. He choice the person who has been one of the more vocal against him. His tone was very firm and hateful to Helen. We all saw him for what he is.

    What a dick!

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