Saturday, February 16. 2008
Five years ago George W. Bush made a horrible mistake: he ordered the US military to invade and occupy Iraq. It's never been all that clear why he did it. The military doctrine of preventive attacks against potential WMD threats wasn't a reason: it was invented just for Iraq, and was stretched thin by the lack of evidence that any such threat existed. Bush no doubt expected the invasion to go as swimmingly as he thought Afghanistan had gone. And there's no doubt that he anticipated a big political upside to another big victory. He had grown to relish his Commander-in-Chief role, and figured his record as War President would be his ticket to a second term. Evidence that the war was a mistake came pretty fast, as Iraq descended into chaos, revolt, and ultimately civil war, while US forces proved powerless to reconstruct basic infrastructure, provide essential security, or reconcile local political factions. Not that Bush tried all that hard: he's been preoccupied for five years now denying that what he did was a mistake.
Some of the costs of Bush's mistake are calculable: over 3000 US soldiers have been killed, and many more maimed; an uncounted number of Iraqis have died violently, probably more than a half million; close to five million Iraqis have been driven from their homes, with 1.7 million fleeing the country, the others moving from mixed to segregated neighborhoods to escape death squads; the US has spent something like $500 billion to occupy Iraq, with the long-term costs likely to be 2-4 times as much; nonetheless, most of Iraq remains unreconstructed, with basic services like sewers and electricity still far worse than before the war. Other costs are much harder to calculate, or even imagine. The war spending and its deficit financing have contributed to an economic downturn that can also be blamed on numerous other Bush policies -- much like Bush tried to cover up his Iraq mistake, his cronies tried to prop up a weak post-9/11 economy with a flood of subprime lending, floating the now collapsing housing bubble. The one success Bush could point to was that by taking so much Iraqi oil off the market he's boosted oil prices (and oil company profits) to historical highs, although that hasn't exactly been an unalloyed blessing for Americans.
Even harder to figure is how much damage to our political and moral culture so much dissembling and posturing, deceit and conceit have caused. By never admitting his mistake, Bush encourages his diehard followers to fight on to the end. From the day we invaded we should have known that it would only be a matter of time before we packed up and left. No army in modern times has invaded another country and held on to control it, and there's no reason to think either the US or Iraq should be the exception. Looking back at the Bremer year one may conclude that Bush's people screwed it up even worse than expected, but it's just as arguable that what they did was exactly what they were about: the cronyism, the corruption, the conviction that their crackpot right-wing economic theories produced (rather than stole) wealth, their naive fantasies that the natives would cower under their displays of shock and awe.
That the US is still in Iraq, with more troops than ever, shows how much of the country's resources Bush is willing to save face. He understands that to admit to a mistake discredits everything he stands for. So he hangs on, setting the table for lashing out at whoever does finally find the realism to withdraw with charges of backstabbing perfidy, hoping his followers can ride that line to redeem him and found a third Bush reich. To the American people, this would be the ultimate instance of adding insult to injury.
Some Iraq links follow.
Patrick Cockburn: Is the US really bringing stability to Baghdad? Depends on what you're willing to call stability. The civil war in 2006 created a new equilibrium with whole neighorhoods "ethnically cleansed" and millions of displaced people. To a large extent, violence is down now because people have resigned themselves to the effects of the violence last year.
Michael Schwartz: The Iraqi Brain Drain. The total number of displaced people in Iraq is close to 5 million, almost 20% of the total population. This piece reviews the history and present conditions. Last line: "As long as the United States keeps trying to pacify Iraq, it will create wave after wave of misery."
Helena Cobban: Military Occupations, Sewage, and Governance. After five years of US occupation, Baghdad's sewer system still hasn't been repaired to the state it was in before the invasion. Cobban contrasts that with 40 years of Israeli occupation of Gaza. The health situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate as Israel continues its collective punishment for the insult of last year's elections.
From other reports, it looks like Israel is getting closer to provoking a new round of terrorist attacks. The first Hamas-linked suicide bombing since well before the elections took place recently -- one of the few things, dysfunctional as it is, Palestinians can still do in response to the conditions Israel has imposed, as well as the targeted killings and more/less random shellings. Hezbollah has in turn threatened to play Israel's assassination game. It is not sure that Israel was responsible for the car bomb in Damascus that killed a Hezbollah leader -- Walid Jumblatt has been talking about doing just that sort of thing -- but if so it wouldn't be the first time Israel killed a Hezbollah leader. I don't see how either Hezbollah or Hamas stand to gain anything by getting back in the terror racket. It works for Israel because terrorist attacks grab world attention, giving Israel a free pass not only for its own violence but to avoid reckoning with all the hardship they've caused.
I shouldn't have to add this, but the war-politics axis is not a zero-sum game of morality. Atrocities on one side in no way justify injustices on the other. There's no way to balance suicide bombing or Qassam rocket attacks and the collective punishment that Israel inflicts on Gaza: they are both off the scale of acceptable behavior. But there is one significant asymmetry: if Hamas halts its violence and mistreatment of Israelis, as they have on occasion done, nothing changes; but if Israel were to halt its violence and mistreatment of Palestinians, the whole conflict would change. It's really up to Israel to take the steps necessary to end the carnage. Until they are willing to do that, it hardly matters what Palestinians do.