George W. Bush, Iraq, and the Kitchen Sink

Length does not equal strength. That’s one lesson of President George W. Bush’s latest speech on Iraq. The president apparently believed that the more he talked to the American Legion on Tuesday, the more persuasive he would be. But tossing in every argument that he’d ever used before, along with the kitchen sink, is unlikely to persuade the American people that either the invasion was or continued occupation of Iraq is justified.

President Bush began not with Iraq, but by endorsing the constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. Apparently a virtual epidemic of flag burning is sweeping America, creating a crisis requiring decisive action.

Next came self-laudatory praise about his administration’s sacrificial efforts on behalf of veterans – even though money and services have consistently trailed the number of injured vets created by his war in Iraq. Indeed, the president had the chutzpah the laud the quality of medical care being provided to veterans, despite the scandal at Walter Reed and revelations of inadequate care for other returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. However, shame has never been President Bush’s strong suit.

Presumably he played these irrelevant but emotionally appealing cards because his overall hand is so weak. So far the administation has been wrong about everything it has said about Iraq. The president’s justifications for invading Iraq were fabrications. His promises regarding the occupation were erroneous. His predictions about the future have been fanciful.

So why should anyone believe anything he now says about Iraq?

It’s a good question which he never answers. Instead, he offered a new and not much improved version of last year’s speech to the same group.

First, President Bush argued that “We always enter wars reluctantly.” That may be true for the American people, but more often than not U.S. officials joyously and enthusiastically send everyone else off to war. Certainly the Bush administration was not reluctant to invade Iraq. Dust was still rising from the World Trade Center when the president and his aides began planning action against Iraq, even though it had nothing to do with that atrocity.

Why then did we attack Iraq? It harbored terrorists, the president explained – though not ones who attacked America. Iraq “defied the international community,” as have dozens of other countries. This administration apparently saw no irony in contending that the U.S. was obligated to go to war to enforce United Nations mandates.

Finally, said the president, Iraq “threatened the security of our nation.” Precisely how? Iraq was a desperately poor country without WMDs whose army fell apart when American forces invaded. A little explanation from President Bush would have been helpful. But none was forthcoming because, well, none was available. Iraq obviously did not threaten America’s security.

For those who would prefer the U.S. government not meddle in the Mideast, however, the president had a response. “We’ve learned from history that dangers in other parts of the world – such as Europe and Asia – directly affect our security here at home.” Of course, Nazi Germany, nationalist Japan, and the Soviet Union, all were serious powers, militarily aggressive and geographically expansionist. Iraq was not.

Nevertheless, contended the president, “on September 11, 2001, we learned that there’s another region of the world that directly threatens the security of the American people – and that is the Middle East.” Actually, any reasonably bright and well-informed person realized this fact long ago. But any reasonably bright and well-informed person also realized that Iraq was not a threat to the U.S.

Now the president wants Americans to believe that “Sunni extremism, embodied by al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies” – which, notably, were not active in Iraq until after the Bush invasion – are the equivalent of Nazism and communism. As President Bush put it: “These extremists hope to impose that same dark vision across the Middle East by raising up a violent and radical caliphate that spans from Spain to Indonesia.”

Why do they attack Americans? Because, said the president, “they know we stand in their way. And that is why they attacked U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and killed sailors aboard the USS Cole in 2001. [sic] And that is why they killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11.”

Alongside the Sunni extremists, explained President Bush, are the Shi’ite extremists, “supported and embodied by the regime that sits in Tehran.” They apparently don’t want a caliphate, but are threatening “the security of nations everywhere” by sponsoring terrorists (though not against America) and seeking to build nuclear weapons (which neighboring Israel already possesses).

At least the president seems to be learning a little nuance. Last year he linked all terrorism together: “When terrorists murder at the World Trade Center, or car bombers strike in Baghdad, or hijackers plot to blow up planes over the Atlantic, or terrorist militias shoot rockets at Israeli towns, they are all pursuing the same objective – to turn back the advance of freedom, and impose a dark vision of tyranny and terror across the world.”

This was always nonsense. But his slightly less simplistic views aren’t much better. The Sunni extremists are not quasi-fascists, with Osama bin Laden as Adolf Hitler, plotting world domination.

Rather, they are disparate groups which view the U.S. and its allies as waging war against Islam. Whatever the justifications for American policy, few Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the occupied territories or Saudis living under the totalitarian rule of the royals in Riyadh or Egyptians living in a long-lived police state view American support for their rulers as representing freedom, about which the president loves to chatter.

To the contrary, Washington is perceived – sadly, with some justification – as having engaged in a sustained attack on the freedom and human rights of many Muslims. Although these policies do not justify terrorist attacks on Americans, it is important for U.S. policymakers to understand what actually animates specific terrorists, rather than operate in a fantasy world, as does President Bush.

The air of unreality continued as the president listed terrorist assaults on American targets. Indeed, last year he was more comprehensive, including the Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy, and Hezbollah’s attacks on the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon and Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, along with the bombing of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa, assault on the USS Cole, and attacks on the World Trade Center, which he mentioned again this year. But none of these attacks occurred because of some magical impact by the Middle East on the rest of the world.

What the president ignored was that several of these attacks were on U.S. military forces overseas rather than civilians at home. American Marines were not in Lebanon to hand out flowers, but to intervene in a civil war – against Muslim forces. The Khobar Towers housed U.S. military personnel whose job was to buttress the Saudi monarchy. The USS Cole was wandering the Persian Gulf to demonstrate American support for various authoritarian but friendly regimes.

In none of these cases was the U.S. government promoting freedom. Although the president claimed that “we are advancing freedom and liberty as the alternative to the ideologies of hatred and repression,” that rarely has been Washington’s policy in the Middle East. It isn’t even the Bush administration’s policy – just ask Egyptian democratic activists. To the contrary, Washington all too often has been promoting the opposite result.

In all of these instances the American government was meddling in messy geopolitical conflicts abroad. Even in the cases of the U.S. embassies in Africa and World Trade Center, the terrorists explained what they were doing, and it wasn’t attempting to get Washington to repeal the Bill of Rights. They objected to U.S. military and political intervention in their world. If only Washington really were supporting freedom around the world Americans would be at far less risk.

If not to promote freedom, then why has the Bush administration gotten so deeply involved in the Middle East. Explains Bush:

“I want our fellow citizens to consider what would happen if these forces of radicalism and extremism are allowed to drive us out of the Middle East. The region would be dramatically transformed in a way that could imperil the civilized world. Extremists of all strains would be emboldened by the knowledge that they forced America to retreat. Terrorists could have more safe havens to conduct attacks on Americans and our friends and allies. Iran could conclude that we were weak – and could not stop them from gaining nuclear weapons. And once Iran had nuclear weapons, it would set off a nuclear arms race in the region.

“Extremists would control a key part of the world’s energy supply, could blackmail and sabotage the global economy. The could use billions of dollars of oil revenues to buy weapons and pursue their deadly ambitions. Our allies in the region would be under greater siege by the enemies of freedom. Early movements toward democracy in the region would be violently reversed. This scenario would be a disaster for the people of the Middle East, a danger to our friends and allies and a direct threat to American peace and security. This is what the extremists plan.”

Adds the president: “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.”

The president’s arguments are quite a mish-mash. His final claim is especially dubious. Instead of intercepting the famed “Zimmerman Telegram” from Germany before World War I, the Bush administration apparently believes it has discovered the explicit bin Laden memo for world conquest, parceling out responsibility to al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Ba’athists, and other groups.

More important, if things are so bad, one wishes that President Bush had been a bit more careful before sending in U.S. forces to destabilize the Middle East. After all, virtually every ill of which he speaks resulted from the aftermath of Washington’s invasion.

Had the administration not attacked Iraq and promised to create nirvana on the Euphrates, the U.S. would not be in danger of being forced to retreat. Had Washington not blundered into war, it would not look weak in getting out of war.

Without the Bush administration’s inadvertent strengthening of forces allied with al-Qaeda, extremists would not be poised nearer valuable oil supplies. Had Washington not eliminated Iran’s two enemies – the Taliban regime and Saddam Hussein – Tehran would not as well placed to commit mischief in the Gulf. And had Washington not spread chaos in the region, sown the seeds of a larger Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, and created a dominant Iran, America’s allies would not be under such pressure. The president’s entire Iraq policy can be summed up as the actions of a man who murders his parents and then throws himself upon the court’s mercy as an orphan.

But the biggest howler is the president’s claim that if we don’t kill Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad we will have to battle terrorists in Washington, D.C. This is such embarrassing nonsense that it’s hard to believe even President Bush believes it.

Most of the forces arrayed against America in Iraq are guerrillas who want to drive out U.S. military forces. They are not interested in coming to America to attack Americans. (Just like the Shi’ite forces which struck the U.S. Marines in 1983 wanted to eliminate the presence of the American military, not kill Americans, whether military of civilian, in North America.)

Even the al-Qaeda members active in Iraq are unlikely to ever make it to the U.S. They lack the skills and training to act outside of the Arab world. They could do substantial damage elsewhere in the Middle East, but there’s nothing Washington can do to stop that – other than leave as quickly as possible. The continued occupation is creating more terrorists, terrorists who are likely to bleed back to their homelands with the potential for striking there. The best way to stop terrorism is to stop more creating terrorists.

The president concluded by spending nearly half of his speech explaining how everything was going wonderfully in Iraq. Of course, he’s been doing that for the last four years. In this case, he stated, events are going great as a result of the recent escalation (it makes one wonder why he refused for three years to put in more troops after the situation deteriorated so badly, but never mind).

Rather hilariously, he charged that his critics were changing the terms of debate, after he had done so repeatedly and shamelessly. More important, the president offered a lawyer’s brief – emphasize your evidence, ignore contrary facts.

Violence is down in Anbar province and parts of Baghdad, but up elsewhere. Violence is down from the peak earlier this year, but remains unacceptably high and well above levels a year ago. The Sunni tribes are cooperating in Anbar against al-Qaeda, but that doesn’t mean they like either the U.S. or the Shi’ite-dominated national government. Despite occasional positive developments politically, there is no evidence of a sustained commitment by national Iraqi leaders to create the sort of political compromise necessary to end sectarian conflict.

Most important, the president provided no evidence that continuing the occupation is likely to lead to a materially better security situation for America. There is likely to be conflict after Washington leaves, whenever that is. Al-Qaeda ultimately will be wiped out by domestic Shi’ite and Sunni forces if the U.S. leaves. Given the threat of future American military action, no successor regime likely will promote terrorism or build nuclear weapons whether the U.S. troops go home tomorrow, next year, or in ten years.

Events in Iraq are now outside of America’s control. American military forces will be going home. The only question is when. Under these circumstances, sooner is better than later.

President Bush closed his speech by claiming that the invasion and occupation had made “a safer world for the American people.” If only that were true. Ironically, for a president whose legacy will be the “global war on terror,” George W. Bush has made the world a far more dangerous place.