June 12, 2005
The daily onslaught of suicide bombings in Iraq is deeply distressing, but it may indicate that a critical "tipping point" in the conflict is at hand. At a commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy last week, Vice President Cheney declared, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a war we are winning." See Washington Post. He was was ridiculed by some for asserting that the terrorist resistance in Iraq is near defeat, which may be a bit optimistic, but leaders are supposed to give upbeat, inspirational assessment. Historical analogies with Japan's desperate kamikaze attacks of 1945 are imperfect, but it would be reasonable to assert that few if any wars have ever been won by suicide attacks.
Anyone who thinks that such attacks indicate widespread resistance to the U.S.-backed regime by the Iraqi people should read the June 8 Washington Post article that describes in detail the network of smugglers operating in Syria. That is the source of the "martyred" radical youths whose lives are wasted in the unholy besmirching of the Islamic faith. Are their numbers unlimited? Time will tell. Fortunately, more Iraqis are coming to realize that far more of their people are being killed by Arabs from other countries than by Americans or other Coalition allies. The Baathist regime of Bashar Assad makes occasional reformist gestures, but the new leader is basically trapped by the ideology and power structure built by his father, the late Hafez Assad. If the U.S. had enough forces to patrol the Syrian border, suicide attacks would probably decrease sharply.
P.M. Tony Blair got some minor concessions from President Bush during his visit to Washington last week. Bush agreed to release $674 million more for famine relief, mostly in Africa, but demurred on other items Blair wanted. Of perhaps more significance for the future of the anti-terror alliance was the news that in July 2002 Blair received a memorandum warning of inadequate planning for postwar Iraq by the Pentagon. See Washington Post. There is no doubt some merit in that line of criticism, and I think Rumsfeld should take responsibility for it. (Fat chance.) The truth, however, is that no one knew what to expect, precisely because the closed nature of Iraqi society under Saddam's totalitarian regime made it impossible to gauge popular sentiment in advance. Some antiwar critics warned before the war that sheer chaos and mass famine would ensue, but no fair observer of Iraq would characterize the situation there in that way. As for the protracted nature of the conflict, apart from some Neocon true believers, hardly anyone expected a quick "in-and-out" by Allied liberation forces. In one form or another, this war will probably drag on for several years or even decades. Given the high likelihood of erroneous premises necessary to formulate a comprehensive plan of occupation, a significantly increased effort devoted to postwar planning might have yielded little if any benefit. War is inherently chaotic and unpredictable, and "the best laid plans of men and mice..." Therefore, a more relevant question to ask is whether Pentagon staffers gave enough training and preparation to officers in combat units to adapt to the various kinds of emerging crises that could be foreseen.
Another criticism outlined in the memo was the familiar charge that U.S. intelligence reports were crafted in such a way to deliver the pre-ordained policy conclusion. Some of that may be true, as seemed to be the case with John Bolton. As anyone who has worked in the government knows, however, survival-oriented bureaucrats have a fetish for writing "CYA" memos that can be dug out to say "I told you so" when the need arises. Moreover, such memos are subject to differing interpretations. So, I'm perhaps less impressed by the Downing Street memo than most people. Blair deserves high credit for sticking to his guns, insisting that forcibly removing Saddam Hussein was imperative for the sake of Western and global security. If anyone should be held to account for lying about critical security issues, it should be George Galloway, the Labour M.P. on Saddam's payroll who recently testified before Congress. He was completely unrepentant, as would be expected of someone who is as deeply mired in corruption as he is; there's no turning back.
Yet another "push poll" from the Washington Post points to declining support for the U.S. war effort. As always, however, the answers you get depend on the questions you ask, and how you ask them. If someone asked me has the war in Iraq made me "feel safer," I might answer "no" as well, but calming our fears of terrorism is certainly not the immediate objective of the war. No doubt, many attention-deficit-afflicted Americans are losing patience with the slow grind on the battlefield, but I interpret the results primarily as an indication of the generalized angst in American society right now. It was probably the case that a majority of (northern) Americans felt the war was a mistake in the early months of 1864. Statesmen and wartime leaders who pay attention to poll numbers are doomed.
The bottom line question upon which all the peripheral questions hang is, Will the war in Iraq ultimately be judged to have been worth the cost? Since I fail to see how anyone could expect there to be a significant decrease in terrorist activity as long as the avowedly hostile regime of Saddam Hussein held power in Baghdad, to me that question almost answers itself. Nevertheless, I remain open to contrary arguments that are founded on solid facts and strategic logic. If Bush fails to do more to muster domestic support for a protracted conflict in Iraq, such as expanding the regular Army and encouraging recruitment, serious doubts about the long-term outcome would be in order.