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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

From Apocalypse to Anticlimax

(Reprinted from the issue of July 31, 2003)

Capitol BldgThe Bush administration is celebrating the latest and perhaps last spectacular turn in the war in Iraq: the killing, in a shootout, of Saddam Hussein’s two sons, Uday and Qusay. They will not be missed by many of their countrymen.

Both were ruthless and cruel, but Uday, the elder, was a fiend whose crimes it is painful even to recite. A brief newspaper profile of him reminded me of Suetonius’s description of the Roman emperor Caligula; you wonder how a human being could bear to inflict such pain on others, let alone enjoy doing it. But Uday Hussein was, if anything, even crueler than Caligula. He once showed up at a friend’s wedding and raped the bride. The groom killed himself on the spot. The bride later turned up dead too. And this is only one of many, many stories, some of them even more appalling.

The world is well rid of this pair. There are no adequate words for such depravity. Emotionally, the crimes of such rulers may seem to justify not only rebellion, but war. But the fact remains that their evil, unspeakable though it was, posed no threat to the United States.

Atrocity stories, often true enough, usually fuel war fever. The real question is not their truth, but their relevance. This culmination of the war on Iraq has nothing to do with the event that triggered it: the concerted terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Nobody will ever forget the mood of the weeks and months that followed. Because of its media impact, it was the most shocking event in American history, if only because Pearl Harbor occurred before news was televised: We all witnessed 9/11.

We struggled to make sense of it. Before 9/11, “terrorism” was a remote phenomenon, a Mideast thing. Suddenly it was here. Why? The media were full of analyses and explanations — of Islam, al-Qaeda, the “roots” of terrorism, the “rogue nations” that sponsored it. Where would the terrorists strike next? If they could destroy our greatest skyscrapers in a flash, what else might they be capable of? Could they get their hands on nuclear weapons? Nothing horrible seemed impossible.

Nearly everyone agreed that the government must do something. Bush pledged an all-out war on terrorism, including resolute action against its abettors: The terrorists weren’t states, but states would be held responsible — first Afghanistan, then Iraq.

It soon transpired that people within the administration, as well as many journalists, had already been looking for an occasion to resume war on Iraq, making plans for it years before 9/11. They were quick to see their opportunity, and an enormous propaganda offensive against Iraq began.

We were warned that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear. He was also suspected of links to terrorists, with whom he might share these weapons. He was capable of striking the United States and its allies at any time — within 45 minutes, according to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The administration even spoke of “mushroom clouds.”

But what if Iraq had had nothing to do with 9/11? This idea was quickly dismissed, even though al-Qaeda openly despised Saddam Hussein and other Arab rulers as apostate Muslims. Some of the war advocates treated the entire Islamic world as the enemy, making no distinction between devout Muslims and secularized apostates. Bush carefully called Islam a “religion of peace,” but he broadened the enemy to include even North Korea in the “axis of evil.”

Still, Iraq was the chief target. Bush would settle for nothing less than “regime change,” promising to replace Saddam Hussein’s despotism with democracy, while predicting that Hussein’s downfall would lead to a wave of democratization throughout the entire Mideast. Hussein was hiding “weapons of mass destruction,” refusing to admit it, defying United Nations resolutions. Bush claimed the authority to resume the war his father had waged in 1991, never formally declared or concluded. Opinion polls showed that he enjoyed strong popular support.

This spring, still using the emotional momentum of 9/11, he launched the war on Iraq. Victory came quickly, and Bush celebrated by appearing publicly in a combat pilot’s garb. Everything seemed to have gone according to plan. The U.S. occupation of Iraq commenced.
Unexpectedly Vulnerable?

Given all this, the apocalyptic atmosphere of the pre-war months has dissipated with remarkable rapidity, giving way to a sense of anticlimax. Victory came easily, almost too easily. The weapons of mass destruction never appeared, even when Hussein was fighting for his very survival. He failed to use them even within his own country, let alone against the continental U.S. No trace of them has turned up.

The occupation is not going well. Attacking Iraq proved easier than actually governing it, and American soldiers are being picked off by Iraqi snipers at a slow but steady and demoralizing rate. It is clear that Iraq was never the threat Bush insisted it was.

Bush’s own veracity has come into question. He has awkwardly abandoned his charge that Iraq sought to buy uranium in Africa, and it is widely suspected that he misused the data he received from the CIA and other intelligence agencies in order to exaggerate the peril.

His real problem is not that his antiwar critics have been proven right, but that he has created general doubt about the reliability of his own word. Lies, exaggerations, bad intelligence, bad judgment — it hardly matters. It’s sinking in that the war was simply unnecessary, and has left Americans neither better off nor safer than they were before.

So, contrary to what even the Democrats have assumed, the overwhelming victory may not be a great political plus for him as he seeks reelection next year. Like his father in 1992, he could find himself unexpectedly vulnerable.

What about terrorism? In striking contrast to the months immediately after 9/11, the problem seems to have disappeared, even as a journalistic topic. Al-Qaeda hasn’t been heard from for many months, and Osama bin Laden seems to have retired even from the audiotape business. The brief Afghan war may have disrupted al-Qaeda’s operations, but even the administration doesn’t claim that the Iraq war has made any difference to whatever terrorist network may still exist. It now describes its objectives in Iraq in terms of liberation and democracy, not defeating terrorism.

It’s hard to say what the real purpose of the Iraq war was, if there was a steady purpose at all. No strategy is evident. To charge that it was “all about oil” may be to give Bush and his inner circle too much credit for lucidity. Their aims seem to have shifted as circumstances changed. But fighting terrorism appears to have become a low priority, as if they have forgotten why all this started less than two years ago.

At the time, in his first major speech after 9/11, Bush warned that the war on terrorism might take years, and though he promised ultimate victory, that we might never know when we had won. He neglected to warn that we might forget why we were fighting. But that appears to be what has happened.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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