The War President

     Conservatives have long put a premium on defense and 
national security, especially since the Soviet Union 
acquired nuclear weapons shortly after World War II. The 
American nuclear monopoly proved unnervingly short-lived. 
To make matters worse, the U.S. government had been 
penetrated by Soviet agents and spies, thanks in large 
part to Franklin Roosevelt's strange affection for Joseph 
Stalin; and the Soviets managed to acquire the awful 
weapons partly by espionage.

     This gave rise to the so-called McCarthy Era, which 
liberals recall as a period of national hysteria and 
paranoia -- as if there had been nothing for Americans to 
worry about. That was a wild distortion, but it's true 
that fear of the Soviets and their little helpers bred 
some bad habits that have outlasted the Soviet Union 

     When it came to defense issues, conservatives forgot 
their old reservations about big government. They tended 
to be as reflexively supportive of anything the federal 
government did in the name of "the common defense" as 
liberals were about anything it did in the name of "the 
general welfare." The result was the fantastic growth of 
a welfare-warfare state, as both sides got what they 

     As the Cold War faded into the past, military 
spending began to dwindle, while "social" spending kept 
expanding. That trend changed suddenly with the 
astonishing and appalling terrorist attacks of 9/11. The 
new Republican administration became as hawkish as any of 
its predecessors in order to wage a vaguely defined war 
on terrorism. Old militaristic habits and poses seemed 
urgent again.

     Just as John Kennedy -- a hawkish Democrat -- had 
pledged to "pay any price, bear any burden" in the 
"twilight struggle" for freedom, so George W. Bush set 
aside any sense of measure about the cost of defeating 
the new enemy. Once again, the purported stake was 
freedom itself, even if it wasn't clear how stateless 
terrorists could imperil the freedom of Americans. The 
enemy was all the more frightening for being hard to 
identify with any precision.

     Guided by a few neoconservative intellectuals (there 
were no neoconservative masses), President Bush soon 
found a sitting target: Iraq. The regime of Saddam 
Hussein was said to pose a terrible threat to the free 
world, possibly a nuclear threat; it was said to be a 
terrible tyranny (like the Soviet Union) and to possess 
"weapons of mass destruction" (also like the Soviet 
Union). Bush also implied that Iraq was harboring and 
abetting terrorists and had something to do with the 
events of 9/11. Destroying the hateful regime was an 
imperative of both national survival and morality.

     Bush never wavered on the evil and the acute danger 
of Saddam's reign. For many months he, his spokesmen, and 
his supporters in the media stressed the urgency of 
making war and effecting regime change. Only good could 
come of the proposed war; it would bring democracy not 
only to Iraq, but to other Arab and Muslim states in the 
Mideast. Costs? They were hardly considered. The United 
States must pay any price, bear any burden. And though 
the administration was prepared to make war with or 
without the approval of the United Nations, it repeatedly 
offered as a reason and justification for war Saddam's 
defiance of UN resolutions.

     The lasting horror of 9/11 and the administration's 
headlong insistence on war disarmed skepticism. 
Republicans were nearly unanimously pro-war; Democrats 
were afraid to oppose it, fearing the stigma of being 
unpatriotic or even anti-American. France, Germany, and 
other old Cold War allies were reviled and derided for 
anti-Americanism, appeasement, and other sins for their 
refusal to back the war. Neoconservative partisans of 
Israel were even more vociferous and uninhibited on these 
themes than the administration was. But to mention 
Israel's interest in having the U.S. knock off its chief 
enemy -- an interest that was hardly concealed -- was to 
court the usual charges of anti-Semitism.

     Finally, in March of this year, the war began. The 
U.S. victory was swift and easy -- even the "cakewalk" 
the hawks had predicted. Saddam Hussein fled, believed 
dead for weeks (though he was apparently only in hiding). 
He used no weapons of mass destruction; if he had ever 
had any, they weren't found. But Bush insisted they would 
turn up eventually; and in the meantime he basked in 
victory, making a triumphal appearance on an aircraft 
carrier wearing a flight suit. Cheering crowds welcomed 
American troops into Baghdad.

     Throughout all this, the terrorists -- specifically 
Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda -- were nearly forgotten. 
They played no visible part in the war. Most Americans 
who favored the war believed that Saddam had been behind 
the 9/11 attacks in some way; the administration never 
quite alleged that he had, but it never denied it, 
thereby allowing people to think so. (One poll found that 
many Americans were unsure of the difference between 
Saddam Hussein and bin Laden.)

     But it turned out that the Bush administration had 
no clear plan for the postwar occupation of Iraq. 
Contrary to its optimistic predictions, seized Iraqi oil 
assets haven't begun to cover the costs of ruling the 
defeated country; Bush has already been forced to ask 
Congress for an additional $87 billion for the purpose. 
Guerrilla resistance, suicide bombings, sabotage, and 
killings of American troops, UN personnel, and native 
collaborators have turned the occupation into a headache 
of daily frustration. Power has not yet been transferred 
to the American-installed Iraqi Governing Council and 
won't be soon. The promised democracy remains remote.

     It now appears that Iraq was never a threat to the 
United States, and it's hard to understand why anyone 
could ever have believed that it was. Any connection 
between war on Iraq and war on terrorism seems extremely 

     The whole operation is turning out to be extremely 
expensive, and it's hard to see what, if anything, has 
been gained. "Liberation" is hardly an apt description 
for what the restive Iraqis are feeling; even the Bush 
"victory" is far from complete. The projected total cost 
of the war and occupation are staggering, bringing the 
prospect of colossal federal deficits for years to come. 
Bush is trying to win international cooperation for the 
occupation, but he has alienated too many foreign 

Change of Fortune

     Most striking of all, Bush's own popularity is 
diving. New polls find him trailing several of the 
Democrats who seek to run against him in 2004. Only a few 
weeks ago his supporters giddily believed his military 
victory would make him politically invincible next year. 
Now the Democrats are pretending they opposed the war all 
along. Even the Clintons are players again, fanning the 
candidacy of Gen. Wesley Clark, who is unlikely to win 
but could pave the way for Hillary to step into the race.

     Even loyal Republicans are finally having qualms. 
They are discovering that military boondoggles can be 
every bit as costly and ruinous as domestic social 
programs. And as it sinks in that American national 
security and survival were never at risk, the thrill of 
seeming victory has worn off and the public is finding 
the aftertaste very bitter.

     It's a startling change of fortune for a president 
who so recently had the country united behind him. George 
Bush may yet join his father as a successful war 
president whose greatest triumph couldn't guarantee him a 
second term.

                                        --- Joseph Sobran


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