The war on terrorism

It has been two years since Islamist terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and crashed a plane into the Pentagon. Since September 11, 2001, life in this country and in much of the Arab world has changed dramatically. A president who flirted with isolationism as a candidate and scorned “nation building” has conducted two wars in the Muslim world. The United States is now deeply, if uncertainly, implicated in the reconstruction of two distant and devastated nations. In both wars, the United States demonstrated its unrivaled military superiority. In Afghanistan, the United States enjoyed the support of the international community, both militarily and in the limited humanitarian work that has followed. Yet before Afghanistan could be stabilized or Osama bin Laden captured, President George W. Bush turned toward Iraq. He accused Saddam Hussein of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), claiming the dictator was trying to put them into the hands of terrorists. Iraq was linked to Al Qaeda and accused of playing a role in the World Trade Center attack. According to the president, Iraq was a principal source of international terrorism, and Hussein’s removal was essential to winning the “war on terrorism.”

Hussein’s long history of hindering and deceiving UN weapons inspectors lent some credibility to these allegations. Still, links between Iraq and Al Qaeda were never established, and the international community, as well as many Americans, were dubious of the rush to war. Failing to persuade the UN Security Council that Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons posed an imminent threat to international peace, the president went to war anyway, justifying his decision by telling the American people that leaving Hussein in power could result in the deaths of tens of thousands Americans. Yet the president never convincingly explained why war in Iraq would make Americans safer.

As expected, the Iraqi army crumbled before the U.S. high-tech offensive, and the United States and Britain took control of the country within a matter of weeks. The Iraqis never launched chemical or biological weapons against the United States. More surprising, four months after the president declared an end to “major combat,” and despite a $200,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of WMD, none have been found. Interviews with hundreds of Iraqi scientists have proved equally fruitless. It appears likely that Iraq’s stores of chemical and biological weapons were destroyed during the first Gulf War in 1991 and under the subsequent UN inspection regime. A decade of UN sanctions apparently deprived Hussein of the ability to reconstitute his WMD programs. In other words, the inspections worked. Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix’s testimony during the UN debates last January and February turns out to have been accurate. The UN could not find evidence of weapons because no evidence existed. (Why Hussein refused to make this fact clearer remains a mystery.) The efforts of Bush and his foreign policy team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, to “prove” the inspectors credulous and wrong now show that those in the administration were the credulous ones. To what extent this was a deliberate strategy to push the nation into war remains to be ascertained.

Faced with these facts, Bush has tried to shift the rationale for going to war. The war was fought, we are now told, to depose a vicious tyrant and to “liberate” an oppressed people. How could anyone question such selfless aims? Moreover, the war was the first necessary step in transforming the Middle East, a region where failed states and Islamic radicalism present direct threats to U.S. security. A stable and democratic Iraq, we are told, will help bring peace to a region vital to our national interests. As the president put it August 27 to the American Legion: if the United States falters, terrorists will soon bring the “war” back to our shores. “Total victory,” Bush claimed, is the only alternative.

If that is the case, things in “liberated” Iraq have gotten off to a very shaky start, as last month’s terrorist bombings at the Shiite shrine in Najaf, of the UN headquarters and Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, and the continuing sabotage of Iraq’s oil pipelines, electrical and water facilities, demonstrate. American soldiers continue to die, killed in ambushes, assassinations, and bombings. More Americans have died since Bush declared “victory” than during the war itself. Bush’s hawkish advisers, such as Richard Perle and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who envisioned a relatively quick and smooth transition to democracy, now look worse than arrogant and foolish: they look irresponsible. So does the president. Bush continues to assure the American people that the occupation of Iraq will be relatively short. He is eager to bring “our young men and women” home, eager to turn over the task of governing to the Iraqis themselves. That is not likely to happen until the United States can guarantee a much greater degree of stability and order, especially in the nation’s Sunni heartland around Baghdad. Electricity, water, and sewerage are yet to be restored on a reliable basis. Moreover, because Hussein remains at large, many Iraqis are fearful of his return, and skeptical about the long-term commitment of the United States. At the same time, the longer the United States stays the more resentful Iraqis become.

Unless the United States decides to leave Iraq before it accomplishes what needs to be done, the occupation is likely to last a long time. It is obvious that the Bush administration wholly underestimated the difficulties and the costs of “victory.” Ideological blinders and domestic political considerations best explain this failure. Worse, Bush hasn’t had the courage to speak honestly about what the transformation of Iraq will cost in American lives and treasure. Even conservative estimates put the bill at hundreds of billions of dollars. Rebuilding Iraq will require a commitment for which Bush has in no way prepared the American people.

How large a commitment? Experts point to the multinational reconstruction efforts in Kosovo and Bosnia. Using Kosovo as a measure, they argue that the occupation of Iraq requires between 250,000 and 500,000 troops. There are only 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now. James Dobbins, Bush’s special envoy to post-Taliban Afghanistan, who directed reconstruction efforts in Kosovo and elsewhere, notes that more troops would also mean fewer casualties.

Of course, an occupation force of that size would have to be an international effort, with the UN and possibly NATO playing an essential role. So far, Bush has wrongly resisted steps that would bring the international community into Iraq as full partners in reconstruction.

This administration likes to boast of its competence and no-nonsense approach to the exercise of power. It seems clear, however, that Bush exaggerated the threat Hussein posed and never prepared for the task of establishing democracy in Iraq. The president has an unrealistic faith in what military power alone can achieve, especially in a part of the world historically hostile to Western influence. These are serious errors in judgment, often accompanied by a cynical manipulation of the facts. Few Americans could have imagined, or endorsed, the course U.S. policy has followed since September 11. The president assures us he has acted only with the highest motives, but he has led this nation into a war that increasingly looks like it has no logical endpoint. Even if one believes the president has been truthful and sincere in his actions, the situation in Iraq represents bungling on a massive scale. Sincerity and Texas bluster alone will not guarantee this nation’s security or improve the prospects for peace in the world. Military victories over two undeniably evil but enfeebled enemies should not blind Americans to the fact that there is less to our current “success” in the war on terrorism than the president and his supporters claim. Nor to the fact that “total victory” is a euphemism for endless war.

Published in the 2003-09-12 issue: 
Also by this author
James Finn, R.I.P.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections
Collections