Unintended Consequences

The last week in June began with President George W. Bush delivering a rare prime-time televised speech to reassure an increasingly skeptical nation that the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq is succeeding, and ended with the unexpected announcement of the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor from the Supreme Court. Finding a successor to O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the High Court, promises to be a brutal partisan battle, one that threatens to consume much of the nation’s attention and political energies for months to come.

Supreme Court appointments are serious business and serious politics. With the Court so narrowly divided, especially on church-state questions that so animate the culture wars, much seems to hang on who will take O’Connor’s place on the bench. Still, it would be a tragedy if the fight over the Court further distracted the nation from the deteriorating situation in Iraq, where this country continues to reap the consequences of the president’s decision to go to war without a serious plan for how to win the peace or any notion of how to rebuild a shattered and bitterly divided country.

As Andrew Bacevich argues (page 13), among the unanticipated consequences of the rush to war in Iraq and the pursuit of the president’s supposed “global” war on terror is the unraveling of the all-volunteer army. Because of the mayhem in Iraq and the undemocratic assumptions underlying both the all-volunteer military and the nation’s foreign-policy decision making, “the pipeline of new recruits is drying up.” According to Bacevich, “Bush will run out of soldiers long before he runs out of wars.”

Bacevich, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is not alone in his assessment of the strain being placed on the nation’s armed services by the open-ended conflict in Iraq. On July 5, the New York Times reported that, in light of the ongoing deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is now reconsidering a longstanding policy stipulating that the nation’s armed forces should be prepared to fight two major wars simultaneously. In March, Colonel W. Patrick Lang, former chief Mideast analyst and director of human intelligence for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, offered a stark analysis of the Iraq war at a forum on “The Ethics of Exit: The Morality of Withdrawal from Iraq,” sponsored by Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture. Like many other military experts, Lang argued that the size of the U.S. occupation force is too small. Given the reduced size of the post-cold-war army and the nation’s other strategic commitments, however, he also insisted that the United States cannot significantly increase the number of troops it has in Iraq. “The fact of the matter is, our forces are too small to sustain our present commitments,” he said.

Lang warned that the insurgency that is killing hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of Americans each month is not principally the work of Al Qaeda sympathizers, as the president suggests, but of the disenfranchised Sunni community. Until the Sunnis are brought into the political process and given a meaningful role in the new government, there is little chance the insurgency will subside. “We continue to maintain as a matter of policy in Washington that, in fact, the insurgents have no popular support, and that they are basically a lonely band of soreheads who will eventually go away and won’t be a problem any more. I think that is absolutely ludicrous,” said Lang.

Like Bacevich, Lang argues that the burdens of the war are being borne unfairly by a small number of Americans, and that the unwillingness of the president to ask for any sacrifice from the vast majority of Americans is fundamentally a moral issue. The mismanagement of the occupation has put the lives of those in uniform unnecessarily at risk, and now threatens the integrity of the army. As Bacevich writes, there is a “gaping disparity between the reputed importance of the so-called global war on terror and the mobilization of resources to fight that war.” If, as the president repeatedly says, the war on terror is this generation’s World War II, then why are so few citizens being asked to do their duty?

Bush’s June 28 speech was yet another example of that disparity-yet another lost opportunity for the president to level with the American people. In order to do that, however, the president would have to own up to the disastrous mistakes made both in going to war and in thinking that the Iraqis would embrace the occupation with open arms. Instead, the president reiterated the false claim that war in Iraq was necessary to defeat terrorism and that the fighting in Iraq forestalls further attacks on the United States. Referring to “terror” or “terrorism” thirty-four times in a thirty-minute speech while again falsely linking Iraq with 9/11, the president continued to play to the nation’s fears.

“We fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand,” Bush said. “So we’ll fight them there, we’ll fight them across the world, and we will stay in the fight until the fight is won.”

With 1,740 U.S. dead, 13,000 wounded, and countless more Iraqi casualties, where is the evidence that this endless war far from home against an ill-defined enemy is the best way to protect the nation or promote the progress of democracy abroad? When will the president be held accountable for his mistakes?

July 5, 2005

Published in the 2005-07-15 issue: 
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