WASHINGTON – It wasn’t what you’d call a very happy anniversary.
Four years into the war in Iraq, which was supposed to be a “cakewalk,” to say that expectations have been lowered would be as much an understatement as, well, noting that “mistakes were made.”
In his brief address Monday, George W. Bush said that “the fight is difficult, but it can be won.” Dwell on that for a moment. The “mission accomplished” president, once so full of certainty and swagger, isn’t telling Americans that victory is proximate or even inevitable, just that it is still possible.
When I heard those words, I thought that either the president had decided “can be won” is now the outer limit of public credulity, or – foolish me – that maybe he had finally begun to see Iraq as it is, not as he would like it to be. But then he reverted to form, raising the specter of the 9/11 attacks, and the speech sounded like just another attempt at spin control rather than the product of any sort of presidential epiphany.
Sigh. The White House remains an epiphany-free zone.
Iraq had nothing at all to do with 9/11, as Bush himself has grudgingly acknowledged. On Monday, Bush brought up 9/11 in the context of what would happen if the United States decided to “pack up and go home.” Iraq would become a safe haven for terrorists and a possible launching pad for attacks on the United States, Bush warned, much as Afghanistan was on that tragic day.
One thing the president failed to mention was that the al-Qaida presence in Iraq was zero before the American invasion, which was a big welcome sign for jihadists from around the globe. And he certainly didn’t mention that U.S. intelligence officials are skeptical of the idea that al-Qaida wants to have a headquarters in Iraq.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told Congress in testimony last month that he “wouldn’t go so far as to say al-Qaida would necessarily believe” its future is in Iraq. “They want to re-establish their base, and their objective could be in Afghanistan.”
Yes, Afghanistan – the war the Bush administration left unfinished in its haste to rush into Iraq. The Taliban, which U.S. forces shoved out of power but did not eliminate, is resurgent and appears to be planning a major push in the spring to retake at least a large chunk of Afghanistan. Across the border in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden – who most assuredly would like to strike the United States again, as he did on 9/11 – is rebuilding al-Qaida and no doubt making nefarious plans.
This is taking place under the nose of Pakistan’s authoritarian leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, our “ally” in the war on terror. Bush said Monday that we have to keep fighting in Iraq so that Baghdad, too, will be an “ally” in the terror war. Boy, with friends like these …
The president says all he wants is a little forbearance while his so-called “surge” plan is given time to work. But most Americans have long since run out of patience. Those who haven’t – who believe a decent outcome might still be salvaged in Iraq – might want to consider not only how daunting the task is, but also the record of the administration that’s trying to get that task done.
George W. Bush and his aides cited dead-wrong intelligence to convince the American people of the need to go to war. They botched the invasion of Iraq by creating a power vacuum that insurgents were happy to fill. They sent only a fraction of the number of troops needed to occupy the country, scoffing at professional soldiers who told them of their error in advance. They paid lip service to reconstruction, putting it in the hands of conservative ideologues who were more interested in setting up a laboratory for their pet ideas than getting the lights on.
In the process, they made Iran stronger and more confident. To keep Iran from dominating the region, that meant having to abandon the “freedom agenda” and essentially stop pressuring the undemocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to reform. They also abandoned the traditional U.S. “honest broker” position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
George Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of this administration encountered a dangerous, unstable Middle East and proceeded to make it more dangerous and more unstable.
And we’re supposed to have just a little more patience, because, as the president said, “there’s a lot more work” to be done? I’d say they’ve already done more than enough, wouldn’t you?
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.