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 The Dust Settles 

July 10, 2003

Only a few months ago, the Bush administration and its supportive media had painted a clear picture for us. Iraq, under the tyrant Saddam Hussein, had “weapons of mass destruction” that posed an “imminent threat” to the United States and its allies. It had connections to terrorist groups and was part of an “axis of evil.” Unless we acted swiftly, the “smoking gun” might be a “mushroom cloud.”

The bright side was that an American victory would “liberate” Iraq, ridding it of a Hitler and bringing democracy to it. The success of democracy there would lead other Arab countries to follow suit, until the whole Middle East was democratic.

How’s it going?

It’s still early for regional transformation, but there is precious little evidence that the administration was right, growing doubt that it was even candid, and heavy suspicion that it never really knew what it was doing. After what at first appeared to be a warm welcome from the Iraqis, American soldiers are now being killed, not in large numbers, but often enough that the pro-war Wall Street Journal is calling for “larger-scale detentions” (concentration camps?) to quell the Sunni population.

If memory serves, the war was supposed to have something to do with the events of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and all that. The connection is now more obscure than ever. The whole rationale for the Iraq war already sounds quaint. The apocalyptic conflict has settled into a muddle.

[Breaker quote: Second thoughts, quiet doubts]The Journal points out that in May 1967, when more than 10,000 American soldiers had already died in Vietnam, half the American public still supported that war. This is supposed to be an argument for hanging tough in Iraq.

But surely the real point is that though many Americans loyally backed the Vietnam war for years, a large majority eventually had severe second thoughts. Nobody who remembers that conflict would choose to relive it, and the politicians know it.

This is why the U.S. Government now sticks to easy wars against weak opponents, with low U.S. casualty figures guaranteed. If Iraq had posed anything like the dramatic threat the president described, he would have hesitated to attack it. He backed down quickly from menacing North Korea when that country boasted of its nuclear capacity.

Second thoughts about the Iraq war have set in. Some of these are loud and explicit. The Democrats want to know whether Bush was given faulty intelligence about the supposed threat. More radical voices simply accuse him of lying.

But more of the second thoughts, as in the case of Vietnam, are quiet and implicit. Few Americans really believe they are better off, or safer, because Saddam Hussein was routed. They realize that there was no real threat. Whether Bush lied or was misled or merely believed what he wanted to believe, it was all bluster.

Like his father in 1991, Bush won an overwhelming victory at little cost and with overwhelming public support due more to a diffuse patriotism than to any felt need for war. And in the first Gulf war, the ease of the victory came as a surprise; many expected Vietnam-level losses. On the other hand, the first President Bush lacked the impetus of a 9/11 catastrophe that could make Americans feel they were really in some sort of danger. That was a war to restore the violated boundary between Iraq and Kuwait.

Later it turned out that the atrocities ascribed to the Iraqis — ripping infants from incubators, and so forth — had been fabricated. Victory brought no sense of relief or well-being, and the president’s temporary popularity as a war leader evaporated before the 1992 election.

In retrospect, the American public may be more confused about the latest war than they were before it began. They don’t feel demoralized, let alone betrayed, but they sense that the administration’s story doesn’t add up. If they still support it, they do so with passive approval, tempered by quiet doubts, rather than strong emotion. The fighting mood has long passed.

So it’s doubtful that the Iraq war will be a real political plus for the president in the 2004 election. The most that can be said for it is that it wasn’t a Vietnam-sized disaster. Despite his bold rhetoric, Bush waged this war with great caution, keeping the stakes low. But that also means that he didn’t really win very much.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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