Beirut — President George W. Bush has urged Americans to “stay the course” in Iraq. He also insists that he takes responsibility for the faulty pre‐war intelligence that led to the invasion and occupation.
Unfortunately, it is not clear what he means by taking responsibility — other than mouthing the words “take responsibility.”
The issue of faulty intelligence is no small matter to be dismissed with a rhetorical gesture. Americans have every right to ask whether if they had known then what they know now, would they have supported the war against Iraq.
Imagine if Bush had gone on television in autumn 2002 and made the following case: “My fellow Americans, I am asking Congress to authorize a war against Iraq to overthrow the dictator Saddam Hussein. Iraq does not have weapons of mass destruction and does not now pose a credible security threat to the United States. Nevertheless, Saddam has been a problem for the Persian Gulf region and an irritant to America for more than a decade, and he has brutalized his own people repeatedly. It would be beneficial to Iraq and the world to remove him from power and attempt to establish a democratic successor government. That will not be an easy task. It will require an occupation of Iraq for many years and cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. It will also result in the deaths of thousands of American troops. And at the end of the day, there is no guarantee that a stable, united democratic Iraq will emerge. Nevertheless, it is worth taking the gamble that we can create a new democratic Iraq as a model for reform in the volatile and dangerous Middle East.”
If Bush had made such a candid speech instead of invoking the threat of phantom weapons of mass destruction, what are the chances that Congress and the American people would have embraced the Iraq mission? Likewise, would they have supported it if other members of the administration had not assured them that American troops would be greeted as liberators and Iraqi oil revenues would pay the costs of reconstruction?
The reality is that, had Americans known then what they know now about Iraq, the chances of a congressional and public endorsement of the mission would have been midpoint between slim and none. Yet Bush now asks us to consider all the previous blunders and misinformation as mere water under the bridge. We should, he insists, stay the course to victory.
But one cannot ignore the administration’s lengthy track record of miscalculations and wishful thinking. The president argues that triumph in Iraq is within reach. But his notion of a united, democratic, pro‐American Iraq that is friendly to Israel was — and is — a pipe dream.
In the real world, the scenarios are far more sobering. Let’s consider the best‐case scenario that has any realistic prospect of coming true. It would include a democratic Kurdistan in the North that is independent in everything but official international recognition. The rest of Iraq would be run by a quasi‐democratic, Shiite‐dominated regime that is quite friendly to Iran. That Shiite‐led government in Baghdad would still face a persistent, low‐grade Sunni insurgency for the foreseeable future (think Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the mid‐1990s).
In other words, even the best‐case scenario isn’t all that great. And there is always the prospect of a worst‐case scenario. That would involve a full‐scale, three‐sided civil war with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey all meddling to support their respective clients. Worst of all, any American troops remaining in the country would be caught in the middle of that cauldron of chaos.
Bush admonishes Americans to stay the course. But staying the course has no inherent virtue as a strategy. Napoleon stayed the course during his invasion of Russia — and his splendid army perished in the Russian winter. Union general Ambrose Burnside stayed the course during the American civil war — sending wave after wave of troops charging up the bluff against Confederate guns at Fredericksburg, with predictable results. Many investors in Enron and Worldcom stayed the course — and rode those stocks all the way to bankruptcy.
Sometimes, staying the course is simply an act of folly. The American people need to at least consider the possibility that the current mission in Iraq may be one of those occasions.