Monday, September 08, 2003
One of the things that is most to be admired about George W. Bush is his sense of getting at the problem directly. The problem he confronted two nights ago was to focus the attention of the nation on the task at hand: rebuilding Iraq, defeating the terrorist insurgency, and most importantly, rallying the people to this cause. He did so by returning to his vision of the Iraq campaign as one battle in the larger war against the Jihadist International. In that, he presented Americans with a choice: total victory or catastrophic failure.
Now, how he arrived at this point has a lot to do with his absence from the stage in July and August. Late summer is always bad for the Bushes. His father was down by double digits to Dukakis in July and would win going away in November. Bush himself had a bad August and September in 2000, a catastrophic September in 2001, and was beset by a financial blizzard in the equities markets in July of last year. Then, as he went to Crawford for the month of July, the Usual Suspects began a leaking campaign to try and dissuade him from going to Iraq, using the New York Times as their megaphone. The President set the ship aright in September at the U.N., in the belief that a common front against a terrorist state would unite the West. Little would he know that the Europeans and the Russians had a financial stake in the perpetuation of Iraq's tyranny, and though that became apparent, Bush doggedly pursued his objective.
The victory was famous and for the most part, complete. However, a critical error was made in the Pentagon as the Iraqi Army was dismissed, leaving unemployed men in the street. While many conscripts did pine for home, I would have tried to find a way to keep a cadre of each unit active so that they could be reformed under the new government. While in the short run that might have led to greater stability; in the long run, it would have almost certainly have led to a coup by Ba'athist Officers. Just like 1958. I can see what motivated the Pentagon to dismiss the Iraqi army, shot through as it was with Ba'athist toadies, but that move contributed mightily to the difficulties we had over the summer.
Meantime, the Ba'athists and the Jihadi began their campaign of assassinations, bombing, and terror. Beginning in earnest in late May, the local Saddam people began an insurgency targeted at G.I.'s. They used four methods of attack: assassination, sniping, RPG attack (rocket propelled grenade), and the remote controlled carbomb or satchel charge. The deaths of the G.I.'s made headlines, but they were not the kind of losses that would provoke hundreds of thousands of American college students into the streets to scream for an end to the killing. These losses were acceptable. As of today, 67 Americans have been killed in action since May 1. That's a lot less than died during the first half-hour on Omaha Beach, and certainly is less than the 600 men we were losing every week in early 1968. Nevertheless, in an age where the news cycle begins anew every fifteen minutes the news of these casualties were maginifed far beyond their strategic significance. That may be coldly analytical, but it also has the virtue of being true.
George W. Bush left the stage to go to Crawford. His political opponents and the mainstream press, neither of whom are supportive of him, did not. Beginning in late July, the Bush Administration fell into a trap of apologizing for placing 16 words in the State of the Union address that also happened to be accurate. A flap between the C.I.A. and the National Security Council became a firestorm that political Washington could not ignore, so eager was it as an organic body to attack the President. Naturally, the Democrats smelled blood in the water. And they went over to the attack.
Led by Howard Dean, the Democrats attacked the whole basis of the war, acting as if Saddam Hussein never possessed weapons of mass destruction nor had high tea with those awful Al Qaeda. Hussein had done both, as had been documented by others. However, much of the Democratic campaign depends on the propagation of myth as fact, a weakness in their argument that will come back to haunt them. Bush's poll numbers went down to a range of between 45% positive and 60% positive due to the constant drumbeat of attacks against the President.
When you don't counterpunch, you stay bruised. Realizing that too many Americans were buying into the arguments of the Democrats, Bush went to the well of his support from the American people. It is at this point that he presented Americans with a choice:
1. We can engage Al Qaeda in this new battlefield and destroy many of their best people.
2. We can retreat from Iraq and cede the field to the jihadists, bringing untold consequences and heralding a new dark age where Westerners aren't willing to defend themselves against the fanatic and the zealous.
Naturally, Bush chose the former. In so doing he outlined three steps. First, he would direct the armed forces to seek out and destroy the local jihadi and Ba'athist goons. Next, he would help Iraq rebuild itself through joint action. Finally, he would turn over the government of Iraq to the Iraqis so that America's presence there might be dramatically reduced. To that end, he sought 87 billion dollars to that end, 66 billion going to the prosecution of the war in Iraq and to Afghanistan as well. The remaining 21 billion dollars would go towards reconstruction in both countries.
The reaction of the Democrats was not long in coming. It centered around the assertion that Bush's invasion of Iraq opened up a Pandora's box of Al Qaeda terrorism, a variation of the terror argument that was made prior to the invasion. Interestingly enough, it is an argument of men who take counsel of their fears. Bush's entire strategy has been to take the war to the enemy's homeland, on the assumption that if you kill them there, they are less likely to be able to field infiltrators who have the talent to kill us here. The Democrats fundamentally reject that strategy, something they don't say in public, but something that is betrayed by Dean's assertion that the money is needed here in the United States. Publicly, they will say that Bush has mishandled the war's aftermath. Privately, they rejected the whole enterprise from the beginning.
It is as if liberals have adopted the Johnson/MacNamara strategy of fighting not to lose, rather than having total victory as one's aim. It is a grand paradox that the generation that rejected the Vietnam war is so ready to adopt Westmoreland's strategy that led the nation to so much grief.
There are signs of good things happening. Iraq's economy is growing. The low-tax/no-tax strategy is allowing entrepreneurship to take hold. The press is the most vibrant in the entire Arab world. And the attacks on Americans are going down as the Army adopts the more flexible and proactive patrolling techniques of the Marine Corps. The thinking is that the Ba'athists and the Qaeda men have suffered severely during the Ameirican counteroffensives. If Americans attract jihadists who wish to kill them, take this advice: always bet on trained infantry against insurgents of any stripe.
So we arrive at the hinge of fate. The question is raised: shall we pursue the war to ultimate victory or hesitate now, only to drink the bitter cup later at the close of a phoney peace. I suspect that that question depends on who wins next year's Presidential elections. In the end, it depends on the American people. Woe betide them if bin Laden's prejudices about the Americans prove to be true.