As one who supported the war—and who still supports its goal of a stable Arab democracy in the heart of the Middle East—I particularly resent the Bush administration’s wrecking of a worthy project. I lay the blame at the doorstep of Bush’s top national security team—Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney—and its ridiculous doctrine of minimal force on a minimal timetable. Colin Powell deserves some of the blame, too, for not resigning when he had serious doubts.
The American people, who overwhelmingly supported the decision to go to war (73 percent on the day the war started), deserved better. Above all the Iraqi people deserved better. If you’re going to save a nation, you’d better do it right. Both the Americans and the Iraqis have paid far too high a price for the way the Bush administration won the quick war but (nearly) lost the long peace.
To be fair, I give credit to Bush for finally making the right decision with the troop surge in Iraq. Combined with other factors such as the reverse-course of the sheiks in Anbar province, the surge led to a stunning reduction in violence—so far a salvation for the Iraqi people. Barack Obama was wrong to oppose the surge (he would have withdrawn all U.S. forces by March 2008), and I’m worried about his plans for a speedy withdrawal from the fragile new status quo.
In Iraq, it was always all about the dying. The rising death toll of American troops—now 4180 and counting—as well as the wild slaughter among Iraqis are what alienated the American people from the project they had originally supported. In October 2006, just before the congressional elections, American deaths topped 100 in a single month for the first time. One week later, US voters were so disgusted that they handed the Congress back to the Democrats.
Thanks to the surge, the situation on the ground in Iraq has completely changed. American deaths in October 2008 were 14. As for the Iraqis, we’ve all seen the pictures of markets flourishing again, families playing in parks, walls coming down between neighborhoods.
But when things were bad, Obama and a few other Democratic leaders (and some Republicans) were too quick to jump on the withdrawal train. Bush, always bullheaded, but this time for the right reasons, faced down nearly everyone in Washington to have his surge. His opponents even included former Republican Secretary of State Jim Baker, a Bush family consigliere. The details are clearly spelled out in Bob Woodward’s new book, The War Within.
Now that the dying is down, nobody is talking about Iraq. It slowly disappeared from the political order of battle over the summer when Prime Minister Maliki virtually endorsed Obama’s new withdrawal timetable (16 months).
But this leaves Iraq in a new limbo. Bush, who botched America’s most important international undertaking since Vietnam by leaving the post-war planning in the wrong hands, is departing. Obama, who has the potential to botch the newfound stability with a politically-driven withdrawal, is arriving.
Obama should reconsider his options. There’s no need for him to cling to his artificial and now bull-headed (like Bush!) 16-month schedule. For one thing, his military advisors -- especially Gen. David Petraeus, today the most respected military man in the world -- are all telling him to go slow. More important, President Obama will not have won the office, in the end, mainly on the Iraq issue (though it played a large role in winning the nomination). The latest pre-election polls showed the Iraq war had fallen to seventh or eighth among voters’ top concerns, with only eight or nine percent calling it their number one issue.
Except for the strident left of the Democratic Party, Americans will not begrudge the new president a reassessment of his timetable. Salvaging the economy has become the overriding challenge.
So there we are, already in the post-election turmoil. Barack Obama’s political honeymoon may be the shortest in memory because of issues like Iraq. He will be beset with choices on the economy, the world financial crisis, and crumbling international problems that no one would normally wish on a 47-year-old man with limited experience of disaster and mayhem. But then, this is the job he wanted.
All those who, like me, finally climbed on his bandwagon will have to wish him well, support him hard, and hark to his leadership. Let’s hope he can lead us out of the disaster that the Bush administration, and the world economy, has created. He should start with an open mind, especially on Iraq.
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