March 27, 2008

Why we're still in Iraq

"Frontline" on PBS is running a pretty good documentary on the Iraq occupation called "Bush's War" which I tuned in to the other night. It had much in common with other recent movies done on the subject, relying extensively on the usual talking-head format using writers who have written the now-familiar canon (among current affairs freaks, like your humble blogster) of books on how Iraq went completely off the rails beginning in the spring of 2003. Books such as "Fiasco," "Assassin's Gate," "Cobra II," "The End of Iraq." I've read 'em all. Iraq is a mess, all right. That's a conclusion which Bush can't lay at the feet of a "hostile media." We won't find out until Bush leaves office just how screwed up Iraq is, and only then if a Democrat is elected. If a Democrat is elected, I suspect he or she will use the conditions in Iraq as the rationale for organizing a departure. The argument will be simple: Iraq is so catastrophically messed up that no occupation which is militarily, politically and financially feasible can stay in place long enough to make a significant difference.

Of course, that's true now. Yet we stay. However, the "Frontline" documentary makes an arresting point: that wasn't the original plan. In all my reading, I had never seen that particular point made. Public statements from field commanders and administrators, such as Tommy Franks and Jay Garner, and interviews with high ranking officials at the Defense and State Departments who are no longer in the government, made a convincing case that the plan was to invade, topple Saddam, receive the grateful thanks and adulation of the Iraqi people -- and then leave.

Whatever the larger ambitions of the Neoconservative cabal infesting the Administration and the Defense Department (Cheney, Libby, Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith), Bush and Rove had simpler ideas. Indeed, Bush's ideas are always pretty simple. He isn't John Adams. He is not a passionate and deep thinker whose very soul resonates with the cry for "freedom!" for the world's oppressed. He's a goofy frat boy with significant problems of mental processing, and the sole function of his presidency is (or was) to settle certain old familial scores about his wastrel life. His view of the relevant world is confined to the perimeter of the mirror he looks into each morning. He has demonstrated his profound indifference to everything else in a thousand ways during his presidency.

So the idea of Bush's War for Bush was to imbue him with the glow of the victorious war president. Mesmerized by Rumsfeld's promise of a quick and efficient victory, and lulled into complacency by his own abysmal understanding of Muslim sectarianism, Bush undertook to finish the job his father left incomplete: overthrow Saddam Hussein. This part worked, which is why he donned the codpiece and landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off San Diego on May 1, 2003. He meant it when he said the mission had been accomplished. Over the next few months, the idea was to withdraw the forces and then to crow about Bush's foresight and courage in transforming the Middle East with his lightning strike, thus ensuring a landslide reelection in 2004.

Then the Iraqis started killing Americans and each other in earnest. From the summer of 2003 until the day after the election in November, 2004 must have been one long nightmare for George W. Bush. That he achieved reelection despite the evaporation of all rationales for the war is a tribute to the unscrupulous genius of Karl Rove and to the pitiful state of the American electorate, who are so easily manipulated with empty slogans and posturing.

The price Bush paid for reinventing the rationale for remaining in Iraq has led him to his present predicament, where leaving Iraq is not an option. Since the flower-strewn parade greeting us as liberators failed to materialize, and no WMDs or links to al-Qaeda were found, Bush was left with the program which bored and irritated him most: building a democracy "in the heart of the Arab world." This, it turned out (according to him), was the idea all along.

If we leave today, Bush knows Iraq will descend into unmitigated hell tomorrow. He will lose any element of control over day-to-day events in Iraq and will be at the mercy of international (objective) reporting on conditions in that country. His frame of reference, that morning mirror, does not encompass such an outcome. So five years after invading we're still there. The plans he's discussing with General Petraeus do not contemplate any troop draw down. If the war costs $3 trillion, if another thousand GIs die, if the military deteriorates, so be it. A man's legacy is at stake.

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