Bad news of war threatens coalition’s ultimate success

  • Debra Saunders / San Francisco Chronicle columnist
  • Tuesday, August 9, 2005 9:00pm
  • Opinion

The headlines from Iraq couldn’t be worse – they announce suicide bombings, American casualties and roadblocks to Iraqi self-governance. This week, the mother of slain Vacaville, Calif., soldier Casey Sheehan camped out at the gate to President Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch. She told reporters she wants to ask Bush: “Why did you kill my son? What did my son die for?” Sheehan wants Bush to send U.S. troops home.

If the American Revolution were fought amidst all this naysaying, America would be a British colony today. Don’t take my word for it. “1776” author David McCullough recently told CNBC’s Tim Russert that if the Revolutionary War had been covered by today’s media, “and the country had seen how horrible the conditions were, how badly things were being run by the officers and what a very serious soup we were in, I think that would have been it, too.”

Amid the bad news, I talked to Maj. John Busterud, a Bay Area lawyer and Army reservist with the 351st Civil Affairs Command of the U.S. Army, who is serving in Iraq. Busterud phoned to talk about the positive things he sees “every day in the work we’re doing here.” It is his job to work with Iraqi officials to make Iraqi government work. He sees that the ability of Iraqis “to govern themselves is coming along nicely. But it’s not the sort of thing that makes the evening news at night.”

Americans read about the suicide bombings to discourage citizens from working for the new Iraqi government. Busterud sees Iraqis lining up to become police. More Iraqi forces are “up and operating on their own.” And, “This doesn’t appear in the media much, but we are definitely taking the fight to the enemy.”

Americans read articles about factionalism that divides Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. You can look at these differences as “intractable” or see the arguments as a sign of “a healthy debate,” Busterud noted.

I ask Busterud a question posed by war critics: Why don’t the Iraqis adopt the U.S. Constitution? His answer: “I hope people at home realize this: We are not trying to impose a 100-percent American democracy on this country. We want them to have ownership,” so their new constitution has to be “a culture- and nation-specific document.”

Busterud sees this as an “information war,” of sorts: “Coalition forces have not been defeated in any engagement platoon-size or larger,” but the U.S. effort is “vulnerable,” he noted, to media reports that suggest the insurgents are winning or that terrorists might have a reasonable justification for murdering civilians. If the bad news prompts Americans to support calls that U.S. troops cut and run, then “the terrorists are only encouraged by that.”

Which is what makes Cindy Sheehan’s encampment in Texas so bizarre: No one can be unmoved by Sheehan’s horrific loss. That said, Bush didn’t kill her son. Casey Sheehan died at age 24 at the hands of men who routinely slaughter innocent children and civilians on principle.

If Bush did what Cindy Sheehan wants him to do, not only would some 1,800 soldiers have died in Iraq for no reason – worse, their deaths will have served the unhappy function of signaling to terrorists that if they kill enough U.S. troops, the White House will cut and run.

As the major noted, if Americans pushed for a pullout in the wake of bad news reports, “that would be a shame. I would hope most of my colleagues and friends in the Bay Area, even some who may have opposed the war initially,” realize the benefit in completing the mission and “are now saying we should see this through.”

Debra Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Contact her by writing to

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