"He should have stayed at home ... he belonged to the skyscraper and express elevator, the ice cream ... and milk at lunch."
-- Graham Greene's description of Pyle, the fictional CIA agent murdered in Saigon during the early 1950s, in his book "The Quiet American"
President Bush is likely to discuss Iraq at least briefly in his Inaugural speech today. Consider this column a balancing report.
U.S. forces, and those of the interim Iraqi regime, are struggling to maintain enough civil order to bring off the Jan. 30 election that will begin to transfer power to a legitimized Iraqi government.
No government, elected or otherwise, can function effectively if political and economic life is disrupted by bombings, assassinations and terrorist attacks. There are perhaps 20,000 insurgents on the ground in Iraq. A majority are dead-end Sunni loyalists of Saddam Hussein. But a significant minority are al-Qaida-related terrorists whose ranks are replenished daily by border crossers from Syria and Iran. The two groups collaborate only informally. Neither will be eliminated easily.
I was one of many who predicted before the intervention that winning a short-term military victory would be easy, but that establishing a stable peace would be next to impossible.
The present situation is one that Bush and his national security team should have foreseen. Bush the Elder and his advisers assessed the situation in Iraq after Gulf War I. They acknowledged that Saddam Hussein, if he remained in power, could cause later trouble. But they opted to contain Iraq, rather than to invade and occupy the country, because they knew the latter course could bog us down for years.
The Iraq intervention increasingly is compared with our intervention in Vietnam, where American and Asian lives and billions of dollars were squandered in a conflict that never involved U.S. vital interests. Iraq, however, has strategic importance that Vietnam did not. And if Saddam, as believed, had or was developing weapons of mass destruction, his removal was important to us. Both the Clinton and present Bush administrations believed he had the weapons and wanted him gone.
After 9/11, Bush saw Saddam as a larger threat -- potentially sponsoring and supplying deadly weapons to terrorist groups.
But Bush moved quickly to war when non-military efforts might still have done the job. Saddam mistakenly thought France, Russia and Germany -- with whom he had big financial and other ties -- could forestall action against him. Bush's mistake was to intervene before weapons inspectors could finish their work and diplomacy might have persuaded Saddam to accept U.N. resolutions or to abdicate. We will never know if Saddam would finally have recognized the reality of his situation. But it would have been worth spending another six months to find out.
Now we have taken open-ended responsibility for trying to build a stable democracy in a country historically torn by ethnic, religious, tribal and national rivalries. Shiites seem certain to dominate national elections and an eventual government. Anticipating that outcome, Sunni insurgents already are killing Shiite leaders who, in turn, have factional disputes of their own.
Other major countries will not join us in Iraq unless guaranteed some later economic or financial plunder. Our troops cannot come home while Iraq is unstable. Federal red ink will continue to flow so long as we carry this responsibility. The Iraq war and aftermath almost certainly will be a central issue in next year's U.S. congressional elections.
In the end, we may have no option but to leave Iraq while a Shiite-dominated regime finishes off insurgents in pockets where they remain. That regime might not resemble the one we hoped to see.
What the Vietnam and Iraq interventions do have in common is this: Both were undertaken without realistic forethought about the time, money and lives we might have to expend on what might be an ultimately unmanageable enterprise in a place we did not understand. Bush is only one of many U.S. presidents who have acted accordingly over the past century.
If you, as I, see fiction as truth and much history as distortion, this is a time to reread British author and intelligence.
Ted Van Dyk has been involved in national policy and politics since 1960.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer