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Behind the Failure
Published on Friday, August 22, 2003 by the Washington Post
Behind the Failure
by E. J. Dionne Jr.
 

Can we now please admit that the Bush administration's policies in Iraq are a terrible failure?

The terrorist truck bomb that blew up the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad this week also blew up the pretensions of an arrogant strategy that assumed the United States could do nation-building on the cheap. It was an approach that assumed we needed little support from traditional allies, only a limited number of troops and relatively modest expenditures to rebuild a shattered country.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the administration's indifference to the truth or falsity of the various claims it made before the war is the fact that it seemed to believe its own propaganda. President Bush and Vice President Cheney really thought that if they wished it, it would come -- "it" in this case being not only a quick victory in the war but also a rapid rallying of Iraqis to the American standard afterward.

Last March on "Meet the Press," moderator Tim Russert asked Cheney: "If your analysis is not correct and we're not treated as liberators but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, bloody battle with significant American casualties?"

Cheney replied: "Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators."

The vice president said he knew this because he and the president had met with "various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq. . . . The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that."

Please look at those sentences again. Note that for its reading of the situation inside Iraq, the administration relied on people who spent their lives outside Iraq. The administration believed the outsiders because the outsiders said what the administration wanted to hear -- and perhaps because the administration had no clue as to how people inside Iraq might react.

It's astonishing that Bush and his advisers never seemed to take seriously the obvious possibility: that many, perhaps most, Iraqis -- especially the Shiite Muslim majority so oppressed by Saddam Hussein -- could be perfectly happy to have the United States get rid of their dictator and then want U.S. troops to leave immediately.

And will anyone in the administration ever be held accountable for putting down Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff before the war? Shinseki told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early March that "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would be required to occupy a postwar Iraq.

Two days later, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz described Shinseki's estimate as "way off the mark." Cheney was also dismissive. In his "Meet the Press" appearance, he insisted that "to suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don't think is accurate. I think that's an overstatement."

It's now clear that the courageous 139,000 American troops in Iraq are insufficient to guarantee security -- including their own. Shinseki was right. Wolfowitz and Cheney were wrong. Will Wolfowitz and Cheney ever apologize to Shinseki?

And consider our president's statement on July 2 in response to a question about attackers targeting our troops. "Bring 'em on," our president declared. "We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." Mr. President, they're bringing it on.

What's required? It's obvious we need more troops in Iraq. Since the administration played down the cost of the occupation before hostilities started, that may be hard to sell to the American people now. As we don't want to bear the whole burden of this enterprise ourselves, we desperately need much more help from allies. We'll soon learn how much crow the administration is willing to eat to make that happen.

And we need to spend a lot more money to put Iraqis to work, to fix Iraq's oil facilities and to repair its electric power system. Will the administration and its neoconservative allies ever admit that their big government policies abroad are inconsistent with their tax cuts for the rich at home?

Now that we have invaded Iraq, we cannot afford to let the place go to pieces. The administration can hold fast to its arrogance. Or it can acknowledge its mistakes and chart a new course.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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