Count Me Out on Syria

Most Who Called for Removal of Saddam Eventually Turned on Bush

Here is my point. Most of those who called for preemption between 1998 and 2001 eventually turned on Mr. Bush, who had listened to them. Almost all the liberal and conservative pundits of the New York Times and Washington Post who wanted intervention eventually bailed with the suspect excuse of something like “my three-week brilliant take-down, your stupid five-year occupation.” Some claimed missing WMD gave them an out (as if we suddenly also learned that Saddam had not posted rewards for suicide bombers, murdered thousands, tried to kill a U.S. president, harbored terrorists, broke UN resolutions, gassed his own people, etc.).

Those who once sung Bush’s praises the loudest and urged him onward (give him the Nobel Prize, nuke Saddam, “I wrote the Axis of Evil line," sweep the Middle East) were always the most clever of critics, as if the more Hillary screamed or Harry Reid declared the surge lost, the more we would forget their October 2002 calls to arms.

If in 2002 Iraq was to be a “cakewalk,” by 2004 it was “Bush’s war.” To name just a few across the political spectrum in random order, I’m sure that a Francis Fukuyama, Fareed Zakaria, Andrew Sullivan, George Will, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., Thomas Friedman, John Kerry, and thousands of others all had legitimate reasons in abandoning the cause of Iraq. Lord knows it was unwise to let thousands of scattered Ba'athist soldiers roam the streets of Iraq unemployed. How stupid was it to focus only on WMD when the Congress gave lots of reasons to remove Saddam? More tragic still was pulling out of Fallujah in April 2004 only to have to retake it in November. Why was a junior three-star mediocrity like Ricardo Sanchez put in charge of ground troops in Iraq? Why did Tommy Franks just quit almost at the moment the three-week war stopped and the reckoning started? “Bring ‘em on” and “Mission Accomplished” are speaking loudly while carrying small sticks. The list of screw-ups goes on and on. But the fact remains that victory in war goes not to those who make no mistakes, but to those who learn the most quickly from them in order to ensure the fewest in the future.

I also grant that one can change one’s mind. But here is the point, to paraphrase Matthew Ridgway of the mess he inherited in Korea: the only worse thing for a great power with global responsibilities than fighting a poorly conducted war is losing one.  I know too the age-old nostrums -- that was then, this is now, things change, only with self-reflection comes wisdom, change is sometimes necessary, etc., etc.

But I have also lost all trust in the Democratic Senate, the commentariat, and the media to call for any U.S. intervention in the Middle East, given that there is a chance that it will go badly, the zealots will bail, and the soldiers alone will be stuck on the battlefield in a Middle East miasma, with little support at home -- a Michael Moore lauding the enemy as “Minutemen,” a MoveOn.Org labeling Petraeus “General Betray Us,” an Alfred Knopf published novel imagining the assassination of a U.S. president, a prominent conservative confessing how he was “duped” by the “neo-cons,” and on and on. Again, been there, done that, sick of it.

One day drones and Guantanamo are war crimes originating from Afghanistan and Iraq, the next day they are ... what, exactly? One day in 2004 Barack Obama has no problem with current U.S. policy in Iraq (“There's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage”); one day in 2007 he wants all U.S. combat troops out by March 2008? In short, there is no evidence that either those in this administration or our elites in general are up for another bloody slog in the Middle East.

I also have only little sympathy now for “Arab reformers,” especially those ensconced at U.S. and European universities. Yes, Iraq was a mess. Bush was a twangy Texan, we know. I am sorry that we do not have mellifluous Martin Luther Kings or Abraham Lincolns around to send in F-16s. The fact remains that Bush was also an idealist, naïve maybe, but not an imperialist or colonialist. He was someone who really believed in establishing the chance of freedom in the Middle East, in the manner that he sought to provide cheap AIDS medication for Africa or expand Medicare prescription drugs, whether all on borrowed money or not. Hate him if you must for being a naïf, but not a British imperialist or Nixonian strategist.