US in for More Than a Penny in Iraq

President Bush looked calm, determined and resolved Sunday night as he capped off Week One of the National Football League with a reminder that U.S. troops are committed to a much more serious and deadly game halfway around the globe. Still it was not difficult to detect a certain sense of desperation in the decision to address the Iraqi war and the putative war on terrorism.

This president doesn’t seem to have a lot of concern about keeping the morale of the American people up. As befits a third-generation member of a Connecticut Yankee family of national political players, his attitude (though somewhat Texanized) seem to be that it’s enough for the leader to declare his intentions, and the peoples’ job is to follow confidently (if not blindly). The notion that it takes a lot of explaining, continuous attention and a certain amount of coddling to maintain support for a difficult course in a relatively democratic society might not be exactly foreign to him, but it hardly occupies most of his time or attention. He probably views that as a positive.

Although he’s getting better, his handlers don’t seem to think that the inspirational address, the appeal to the big picture, to the significance of his actions in the furtherance of liberty and American ideals, is exactly his strong suit. So he has waited five months beyond his initial rather premature and theatrical aircraft carrier declaration of victory to explain in more detail why the rosy scenarios about Iraq haven’t exactly panned out – without actually admitting, of course, that it looks very much as if the United States went into the occupation without an especially coherent plan for the occupation beyond expecting flowers from the Iraqi people and hoping for the best.


I‘ll give Dubya this much. Unlike the previous denizen of the Oval Office, who offered serial insincere promises (by Christmas – well, maybe late Spring) concerning when US troops would be finished in Bosnia or Kosovo (they’re still there), he’s willing to tell the American people that Iraq "will take time, and require sacrifice." And he put a price tag (for this year) on the operation, although like most government cost estimates that sound shockingly high at first blush, it will probably turn out to be a lowball estimate.

Whether it is reassuring for an American president to proclaim "we will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary" to achieve a still-undefined set of objectives whose achievement looks to be measured in terms of decades rather than years now is another matter.

In declaring Iraq now the "central front" in the war on terror, President Bush sidestepped troubling questions that have been percolating ever since the American invasion. Would Iraq be a "magnet for terrorists" if not for the American occupation forces there? Given the shaky-at-best connection between Saddam’s vicious regime and international terrorism before the invasion, has the war actually increased terrorist activity? Has war with Iraq, and the perceived need for long-term occupation, diverted resources from seeking and fighting active terrorists?

And just where are those vaunted weapons of mass destruction? Even if some are found – remember that little two-day news cycle that had them in the Syrian-controlled Lebanese Bekaa Valley? Hope springs eternal – could anything resembling a credible case be made that they posed anything like an imminent threat to the United States?

These questions might seem like sour grapes and hindsight if not for the fact that the president seems to have committed the American people and a military that looks increasingly overstretched to an open-ended war against a tactic rather than a concrete, discrete enemy – a war with only the vaguest of objectives and no obvious exit strategy.


President Bush’s rather belated effort to explain it all to the American people came on the heels of an especially bad week or two for the American government’s credibility in Iraq, and smells like an part of an ongoing effort to try to neutralize the developing disaster in Iraq before next year’s presidential election. We had the news that the Congressional Budget Office projects a federal budget deficit of some $480 billion (and what do you bet that will turn out to be a lowball estimate?) for this year, with deficits stretching at least to 2012 or so.

Then last week the CBO estimated that given normal policies for troop rotation and the like (at least normal until now), and the costs associated with such rotation, the United States had the resources to keep maybe 30,000 or 40,000 troops in Iraq on a relatively long-term basis. That’s a lot less than the 130,000 or 140,000 US troops that are in the country now, and far less than the 300,000 to 500,000 that people who purport to be experts on nation-building think is a more realistic number to accomplish what the government says (or implies, it still doesn’t have a plan it has communicated to us) needs to be done.

And then, of course, there was the bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad, followed quickly by the mosque bombing and the killing of an imam alleged to be a potentially helpful moderate. As Philadelphia Inquirer foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin pointed out, in a column that details other problems, "Without an integrated US plan that sets out attainable goals and a time line for turning over power to Iraqis, the situation inside that country is only going to get worse." It was beginning to look as if Iraq was spinning out of control. It was time for a little spin control from the top.


In her column, Trudy Rubin laid out what might be viewed as the realist-internationalist view of the matter. Although she was skeptical about the war during the build-up, now that it’s a fait accompli, she thinks we need to establish order before getting out and handing the country back to the Iraqis within a year or so. That means shipping over electrical generators by the thousand, if that’s the only way to supply electricity fairly quickly, and pouring in tons of money – "a massive infusion of funds" – to buy stability and credibility.

Ms. Rubin believes the effort to get the UN involved, however belatedly, is a signal of desperation. But she also thinks "the amount of money needed is too large, and the situation in much of Iraq too dangerous, for foreign peacekeepers to handle." The UN might be able to help when it comes time to organize elections, but the United States is going to have to bite the bullet and pay for the occupation and transition.


I‘m more inclined to agree with Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute, who noted: "By remaining in Iraq after Hussein’s ouster – with no demonstrable plan for exiting the country – the Bush administration has all but invited foreign fighters to join forces with Iraqis frustrated and humiliated by a foreign occupation. The result is an alliance of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers working to kill Americans and any Iraqis aiding us. These actions thwart the desires of many Iraqis because acts of terrorism postpone progress toward self-government."

The lesson I draw is that while we can’t undo the damage already done by engaging in a war of aggression based on dubious (at best) claims of the danger Saddam’s nasty regime posed to the United States, the best course is to get out as quickly as possible, recognizing that we aren’t going to be able to establish a model democracy (which was always a rather paternalistic and condescending goal for a region of the world with a history of civilization much longer than ours).

The president’s best course would have been to announce that with Saddam gone (even though he apparently hasn’t been captured or killed) the danger that his regime posed to the United States has ended. Since we never had any dreams of empire [the administration has always claimed this, remember], and since we trust the decent majority of the Iraqi people to handle their own country better than foreign occupiers could, our job is done. We’ll be available to help with civilian infrastructure problems and to mediate possible minor disputes along the road to full sovereignty, but our military will be gone in three months. Before they go, however, they’ll concentrate on killing as many terrorists as possible.

But the president and many of his advisors do seem to have those dreams of empire – a benevolent empire interested only in helping others to establish the kind of democracy that gets the State Department Seal of Approval, but an empire with strategic aims in the rest of the region. So the American people and the American taxpayers – who are treated rather cavalierly as the source of resources for all these Wilsonian dreams of universal benevolent domination – get stuck with an open tab whose full cost will probably never be acknowledged until secret papers become available 25 or 30 years from now.


I participated Monday afternoon in one of those conference calls with journalists that are part of the way Washington tries to spin coverage and editorial response theses days – in this case with White House chief of staff Andrew Card. It was hardly reassuring.

Mr. Card did say there’s "no reason to believe" a special supplemental appropriation like this one will be needed next year, but he couldn’t make an absolute promise. He resisted a timeline for an end to US troop deployment and stressed again that this will be a long war, a different war.

When I asked him what would be the signs of success, the guideposts or criteria for knowing the US is accomplishing its mission, he reverted to the standard line that in the wake of the war there’s no threat of Saddam-controlled WMDs, and that we know the regime isn’t helping or harboring terrorists any more (slipping by the question of whether it was before the war). That was making a case that the war has been a success so far, but he didn’t elucidate how we might know in the near future – a year out, two years – that the occupation and transition regime was being successful and we could anticipate a reduction in the US commitment.

To my way of thinking, he was implying that the commitment is very open-ended. It didn’t sound as if anyone in the administration had thought seriously about the criteria that would signal it was time to end it.


Mr. Card accentuated the positive, noting that guerrilla attacks are occurring mostly in the "Sunni triangle" between Baghdad and Tikrit. He said most Iraqis are pleased that Saddam is gone and in most of the country there are heartwarming stories to be told about cooperation between American troops and the Iraqi people.

No doubt many of those stories are true, although they’re hardly the whole picture. If they were, President Bush might not have given the speech Sunday night (although with the anniversary of 9/112 coming up he might have).

With all due respect, however, the president owes the American people a lot more specific information. Optimism, determination and platitudes are no substitute for clear guidelines about what would constitute victory and a realistic estimate of when it can be expected. I resisted the idea for a while, but it seems quite likely that our titular leaders view the war on terrorism as this generation’s Cold War – a conveniently open-ended commitment to protect the world from evil as the administration defines it, wherever and whenever it appears, as a justification for beefing up the military and intelligence services and wielding power in the world.

Interestingly, our newspaper, published in a relatively conservative area that is expected to voter overwhelmingly in favor of recalling Democratic Governor Gray Davis, on Monday received no letters along the lines of "the president has explained it all again, so why don’t you lily-livered whining doubters shut up and get with the program." We will probably get some in the next few days after the three critical letters published today (Tuesday). But it’s possible that the president didn’t succeed in reinvigorating the support-the-president-no-matter-what troops, at least not immediately. Perhaps they’re not out there, at least not in the numbers there were during the first phase of combat operations.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).