Monday, January 19, 2009

The End of the Bush Era: Iraq

This is the second in a series of essays, "The End of the Bush Era." It is a list of what I believe are the most prominent successes and failures of this prolific politician who, for better or ill, is going to become an indelible part of history.

The reasons for why the Bush-Blair coalition went into Iraq for Gulf War 2 is going to remain one of the great mysteries of our generation.

A lot of answers are on offer, but they are at best only a piece of the puzzle, and at worst, dismissive of exactly how convinced these gentlemen were (and remain to this day) that we needed to bomb Iraq.

Oil is not a good enough a reason. Iraq was a net importer of oil for years after the invasion in 2003, and it couldn't have been expected to be any different. Oil is a capital-intensive venture, and most of the infrastructure was crumbling in Iraq, after more than 12 years of sanctions. Today, after 5 years, Iraq's contribution to global oil production is still nothing to write home about.

It may be a combination of oil and one-upping his father, who very prudently went in with certain objectives, achieved them, then moved out, but then subsequently lost his re-election in 1991.

It could have been the Cookie Monster, I don't know. The truth is, nobody does. Despite the numerous books that have come out on the Bush presidency, the real inner core of interactions are covered in a fog of war, and subject to conjecture. Everyone's got a guess, and an opinion, but nobody really knows.

If you ask Bush and Blair about it, they go into moral platitudes about how they "believed" it was right, as if you're asking them if they believed in Jesus or Buddha, and then fall back to the ridiculous argument that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein.

Well, it would be a better place without Robert Mugabe, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, and my annoying university roommate in 2006. Invade them too, why don't you, and make the world a "better place"? It's a cop-out.

It is a decision perplexing in its stupidity and awe-inspiring in the scale of disaster it has rained down upon Iraq and the world.

I still remember watching "Operation Shock and Awe" on CNN from Abu Dhabi in March 2003. It indeed was both shocking and awful.

The skyline of Baghdad was glowing orange in the night time as it rained fire. The domes and palm trees, such a familiar site for me, (having lived and grown up in the Middle East myself) silhouetted against the flames. To see it burn like that, it touched me really deeply. People shouldn't be allowed to do things like that without due cause.

Everyone outside of the Western intelligentsia informally knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Iraq was under weapons inspections, stricter sanctions or bombings for the past 12 years at that point, and this combination of UN-administered soft and hard diplomacy was doing a pretty decent job of containing the Iraqi threat. Al Qaeda loathed Iraq and wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole, and Saddam Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.

Hans Blix, the UN Weapons Inspector, a diplomat and academic, made the most logical observation: we don't have enough information to draw a conclusion safely, and more inspections are required. The US and the UK ran an unsuccessful smear campaign to completely destroy the man's reputation in a bid to overturn his opinions so they could start bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age.

I interviewed a certain Dr. Joseph Nye (a Distinguished Service Professor at the Kennedy School of Public Policy in Harvard) while I was in NUS in 2004 for my university publication, after it had become obvious that there were no weapons. In true academic humility, the man admitted in all honesty he was very surprised Saddam Hussein didn't have any weapons, because, and I remember his exact words, "we knew he had them."

This has to be one of the world's biggest "Oops!" Billions of dollars wasted, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead, thousands of coalition casualties, a resurgence of localized Al Qaeda (where previously there was none), and an eruption of brutal, horrific sectarian violence resulted.

They underestimated so completely how difficult it would be to tackle a country so diverse and violently communal, that it genuinely baffles the mind as to what exactly they were expecting. "To be greeted as liberators" is part of the refrain they had stuck to, another indicator of how blinded by ideology and an over-simplistic worldview the Bush administration had to be.

Mr. Blair, in the meantime, had nought say in the failing strategies being implemented by the Bush administration. Iraq is a blemish on Tony Blair's record; he has arguably been one of Britain's most successful Prime Ministers since Winston Churchill, but how can one not give him the unfortunate moniker of "a poodle" after so submissively allowing George Bush to first spear-head a campaign against Iraq on such flimsy evidence, and then completely botch up the ground operations?

The post-invasion failures are summed up by the one very stupid thing they did: they went on and completely disbanded Iraq's security forces.

So they released men trained in handling arms and the arts of war to fend for themselves in their ethnic enclaves in a deeply schismatic region of the world that had suffered many years of painful dictatorship, and liberated only after war and bombings. Were they expecting grace and sensibility?

But the world collectively drank the kool-aid. The press was so sparing in their criticism and scepticism of their campaign against Iraq, one wondered if they were complicit. Honestly, where were the "analysts" and "experts" when the drums of war were being beaten for no apparent reason?

Most of the American senate voted for the war in Iraq, Democrats and Republicans alike. Most of the Americans supported the war, even after it was found to be under false pretence, much to the world's dismay when they re-elected George Bush for a second term in 2004, vindicating him that he was on the right path.

It was only in the last 2 years of Bush's presidency that people started losing complete faith in the man.

So it only took 6 years for them to catch on that this man had no clue what he was doing. It is remarkable how enduringly short-sighted and over-simplistic the American people are when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Instead of looking inward after the attacks of 9/11, they looked outward for something to bomb. And one country wasn't enough, they had to find a second one to empty their ordinances in.

The troop surge in 2007 eventually worked, something Bushites claim is a great victory, because he did it when everyone was against the idea, and it actually worked (much to everyone's surprise).

But even then, this success cannot be credit to him. It's like saying, I'm sorry I axed your fingers clean off your hand, but look, I managed to sew a couple of them back on again. I'm great, aren't I?

The thought that went into the troop surge and its associated policies under David Petraeus should have been the name of the game from the get-go. In fact, what game? There shouldn't have even been a war!

I don't see why he should claim the credit for ameliorating a planetesimal problem that he created. Iraq today has only "tolerable" levels of violence, where "only" 20 or so people die in bombings everyday, where previously it was 10 times as much. He set the bar of expectation so low that a success like this looks like a defining moment in his presidency.

Iraq is an epic, unprecedented failure that George W. Bush and his complicit allies are entirely responsible for. It outsizes all of his other failures, of which there are many, by at least an order of magnitude.

Despite what minor successes he may have had in his time, the scale of human and capital loss the world has incurred under this man's leadership, it would be small justice for Iraq to define his presidency, and for him to be remembered as one of the worst American presidents in recent history.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)