Come September 11, 2005, the United States will have been at war with terrorism longer than it took the Republic to vanquish the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan in the Second World War. The Republic did not jump hastily into that conflict. Only with the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, did President Franklin D. Roosevelt feel confident to ask Congress for a war declaration, thus ending the most vitriolic debate ever on America’s role in the world.
Some sixty years later, American President George W. Bush declared war on terror, a conflict that commenced with the overthrow in Afghanistan of the Taliban, which had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the destruction of the New York World Trade Center and attack upon the Pentagon. Even before these atrocities, Bush and his advisers had determined, in secret, that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, whom Bush’s father failed to depose during the first Gulf War, would have to go.
Four years of open-ended war later, the balance sheet on the war against terror is at best mixed, raising questions about American political leadership, the role of strategic intelligence, and the whether the republic considers itself part of the world. Critics also question Washington’s unstinting support for Israel in its contest with Palestinians seeking a new homeland, while people everywhere ponder the impact of the war on terror upon civil liberties. More recently, with the carnage in the British public transport system, one can only wonder if Bush’s continued prosecution of the Iraq war -- the centrepiece of the war on terror -- is in fact creating a new generation of martyrs willing to become suicide bombers in the name of radical Islam.
“We’re fighting them over there so we won’t have to fight them here,” administration loyalists like Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz reiterated again and again. Engaging terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration reasoned, would deal terrorism a mortal blow and initiate the inexorable process of democratization throughout the Middle East.
Little, if anything, was said in Washington about democratic change in the corrupt oil autocracies transformed into oligarchies by trillions of western petrodollars. Little was said about the history or ethno-cultural roots of conflict in Iraq. In Bush’s view, Saddam Hussein was allied with bin Laden, possessed weapons of mass destruction, and stood as a clear and present danger.Now, more than 1800 American deaths later, and after a particularly nasty month of bloodshed, American hopes for Iraqi democracy are subdued these days. Despite (or because of) the country’s parliamentary elections, proposed constitution, and U.S. promise to let the Iraqis govern themselves, those observers who agreed with former American pro-consul Paul Bremer’s promises of a democratic Iraq are now considered, even within the Washington beltway, as “illusionists”. As critics point out, Iraq was cobbled together once before, at its inception at the end of the First World War, as a jerry-built collection of Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds, groups whose collective weakness would allow British oil interests an upper hand in regional politics.
Meanwhile, in America, the antiwar movement has been galvanized by Cindy Sheehan, a woman whose soldier son was killed in Iraq. Sheehan, who has been camping near Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch, is demanding a meeting with the president and wants U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq. Republican leaders are uneasy about next year’s congressional elections, with Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska leading a growing chorus linking the Iraq sand trap with the Vietnam quagmire.
How much longer will the American people support the war? Bush has rebuffed any and all suggestions that the time is right to cut losses and depart. Indeed, his reading of history considers the war in Iraq/and against terror as similar to the Allied cause during World War II. Seeking to reprise Winston Churchill’s role during that conflict, with British PM Tony Blair playing the role of ally, the president is leading an enterprise that is oddly detached from the daily lives of most Americans.
The U.S. military in Iraq is in no way a democratic body, and it seems poorly equipped to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, let alone defeat an intensifying insurgency. Indeed, the American force now appears almost a mercenary organization, served by the aspiring poor, aging reservists and National Guard, and hired guns. Nor have Americans made the kind of material sacrifices that traditional wars necessitate, with the exception, ironically, of soaring gas prices.
Bush fails to comprehend two major points in his argument that the U.S. must stay the course in order to bring safety. First, in toppling Saddam Hussein, the United States toppled an authoritarian dictator akin to Marshal Josep Broz Tito in Yugoslavia after World War II. Hussein ruled with the same brand of ruthlessness Tito exhibited in keeping the lid on Serb, Croat and Bosnian aspirations. When Tito died, the lid came off and the blood shed in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s attests to the power of those historic ethnic hatreds.
Second, Hussein’s cruelty against Iraqi Shiites, Kurds, and other groups did not preclude resolute American support during the 1980s, while Iraq and Shiite Iran were at war. During the Reagan administration, policymakers saw Iraq’s leader as a counter, ironically, against radical Islamic Iran, and sent Hussein millions of dollars of aid. So, too, did Washington funnel millions to bin Laden and the Afghan mujahideen in their jihad against the Soviet Union. Events in the Middle East during the past four years demonstrate the blowback effect -- that whatever goes around, comes around.
Bush and Blair long ago declared both wars over and labelled them victories. Their shared definition of triumph, of course, leaves them in an untenable position. Indeed, seldom have political leaders proved so myopic. Unfortunately, neither man recognizes that the logic of the ongoing war on terror trumps specific conflicts, wherever they may occur, just as the war on communism did for fifty years.The burgeoning American death toll in Iraq demonstrates that democracy and freedom travel with difficulty.
This article first appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard August 25, 2005.