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 Quagmire in the Sun 

August 19, 2003

Sometimes our enemies have a point. Realizing this is part of growing up, and some people never make it.

When the United States conquered Iraq a few months ago, we were told that the Iraqi people were gratefully welcoming the American troops who had liberated them from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. “We’re hearing from the grateful ones now,” someone remarked. “We’ll hear from the others later.”

We are indeed hearing from the others, as U.S. soldiers and UN personnel are shot and blown up daily. There is precious little sign that the Iraqis are still thankful, if they ever were, for their putative liberation. We can only guess why this is so.

Last week, as you may possibly have heard, the northeastern United States were struck by an enormous power failure. For a few hours, millions of Americans found themselves suddenly without electricity in 90-degree weather. They weren’t happy about it, and there has been much pointing of accusing fingers, but it’s generally agreed that it was an accident.

But just imagine the reaction if it had been the work of a foreign government. And imagine how we’d feel if we were a poor, weak country that couldn’t retaliate, while enemy troops, having cut off our electricity, moved in and occupied us. Imagine that the power outage went on for months, while the temperature rose as high as 125 degrees.

Might some of us have been tempted to strike at those occupation troops? Would we have called Americans who did so terrorists or patriots?

[Breaker quote: The failure of "liberation"]Of course I’m describing what has actually happened in Baghdad, where the general reaction to the news of our power outage was that we were getting a small taste of our own medicine. The New York Times quotes one Iraqi who recalls that after the 1991 Gulf war Saddam Hussein restored electrical power within two months. No doubt millions of Iraqis share his sentiments.

The Bush administration didn’t plan on this: in the early phase of their “liberation,” many Iraqis are already yearning for the good old days of Saddam Hussein. Of course we should bear in mind that many Russians still pine for the good old days of Stalin, so this isn’t a final moral judgment on the war. But it is certainly a reflection on the administration’s pre-war optimism, especially when the practical result so far is a mounting pile of dead Americans.

President Bush showed more sense during the 2000 presidential campaign, when he expressed skepticism of “nation-building.” People without electricity in punishing summer heat aren’t impressed by promises of democracy in the indefinite future. It’s time for Bush to drop the triumphalist rhetoric about the desperate situation he has created in Iraq.

In the spring of this year Bush was sitting on top of the world. He had gotten the war he wanted, won it easily, and could crow about vanquishing Saddam and bringing freedom to the oppressed. Predictions of a “quagmire” were laughed off. Bush was still confident that Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” would be found very soon.

Now the Iraqis are fighting back with the only weapons they have left — not the doomsday weapons of Bush’s fantasies, but rifles and explosives that could never threaten us at home, but make ruling Iraq a nightmare.

We can be sure that this administration will never utter the three simple words that no administration has yet learned to pronounce: “We were wrong.” But from now on its chief challenge will be to disengage from Iraq, to withdraw decorously, and to minimize the political cost in 2004.

It won’t be easy. All the urgent reasons trumpeted for the war for so many months now ring hollow. Even Colin Powell’s reputation for sober judgment is in ruins. America’s international image is one of a bully, and an incompetent one at that. Once again it has started something it had no idea how to finish. Instead of being loved and respected, it finds itself hated and despised.

Bush is a stubborn man, and he isn’t inclined to climb down from a position he has insistently taken. He pledged to destroy the Iraqi threat while leaving the Iraqi people better off. But there was no Iraqi threat, and most Iraqis are probably worse off than before. And Bush no longer looks politically invincible.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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