Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bush's greatest sin: winning in Iraq

Though I voted for Obama and am very pleased that he's now our president, he and the political establishment were completely wrong about the surge in Iraq. History will no doubt judge George W. Bush harshly on a number of issues, like his early denial on global warming---and every other environmental issue, for that matter. But history will probably be kinder to President Bush on Iraq, especially if, as now seems to be happening, that country succeeds in building a more or less functional society. Anyhow, as we celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, Mr. McGurn makes an important point about President Bush and Iraq:
Wall Street Journal
Jan. 19, 2009
By William McGurn

In a few hours, George W. Bush will walk out of the Oval Office for the last time as president. As he leaves, he carries with him the near-universal opprobrium of the permanent class that inhabits our nation's capital. Yet perhaps the most important reason for this unpopularity is the one least commented on.

Here's a hint: It's not because of his failures. To the contrary, Mr. Bush's disfavor in Washington owes more to his greatest success. Simply put, there are those who will never forgive Mr. Bush for not losing a war they had all declared unwinnable.

Here in the afterglow of the turnaround led by Gen. David Petraeus, it's easy to forget what the smart set was saying two years ago---and how categorical they all were in their certainty. The president was a simpleton, it was agreed. Didn't he know that Iraq was a civil war, and the only answer was to get out as fast as we could?

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee---the man who will be sworn in as vice president today---didn't limit himself to his own opinion. Days before the president announced the surge, Joe Biden suggested to the Washington Post he knew the president's people had also concluded the war was lost. They were, he said, just trying to "keep it from totally collapsing" until they could "hand it off to the next guy."

For his part, on the night Mr. Bush announced the surge, Barack Obama said he was "not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse."

Three months after that, before the surge had even started, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pronounced the war in Iraq "lost." These and similar comments, moreover, were amplified by a media echo chamber even more absolute in its sense of hopelessness about Iraq and its contempt for the president.

For many of these critics, the template for understanding Iraq was Vietnam---especially after things started to get tough. In terms of the wars themselves, of course, there is almost no parallel between Vietnam and Iraq: The enemies are different, the fighting on the ground is different, the involvement of other powers is different, and so on.

Still, the operating metaphor of Vietnam has never been military. For the most part, it is political. And in this realm, we saw history repeat itself: a failure of nerve among the same class that endorsed the original action.

As with Vietnam, with Iraq the failure of nerve was most clear in Congress. For example, of the five active Democratic senators who sought the nomination, four voted in favor of the Iraqi intervention before discovering their antiwar selves.

As in Vietnam too, rather than finding their judgment questioned, those who flip-flopped on the war were held up as voices of reason. In a memorable editorial advocating a pullout, the New York Times gave voice to the chilling possibilities that this new realism was willing to accept in the name of bringing our soldiers home.

"Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave," read the editorial. "There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide." Even genocide. With no hint of irony, the Times nevertheless went on to conclude that it would be even worse if we stayed.

This is Vietnam thinking. And the president never accepted it. That was why his critics went ape when, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he touched on the killing fields and exodus of boat people that followed America's humiliating exit off an embassy rooftop. As the Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti noted, Mr. Bush had appropriated one of their most cherished analogies---only he drew very different lessons from it.

Mr. Bush's success in Iraq is equally infuriating, because it showed he was right and they wrong. Many in Washington have not yet admitted that, even to themselves. Mr. Obama has. We know he has because he has elected to keep Mr. Bush's secretary of defense---not something you do with a failure.

Mr. Obama seems aware that, at the end of the day, he will not be judged by his predecessor's approval ratings. Instead, he will soon find himself under pressure to measure up to two Bush achievements: a strategic victory in Iraq, and the prevention of another attack on America's home soil. As he rises to this challenge, our new president will learn that when you make a mistake, the keepers of the Beltway's received orthodoxies will make you pay dearly.

But it will not even be close to the price you pay for ignoring their advice and succeeding.

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At 8:32 AM, Blogger Lex said...

Sorry Rob. I agree with you about lots of things but not this one.

If this is what victory looks like I'm not going to start celebrating any time soon. As of the end of March the war, the *unnecessary* war, had cost $526 billion and each day it costs $275 million more. Total expected bill? $3 trillion dollars at a time when the US needs every dollar it can get to revive the economy.

Oh yes, almost 4,000 dead American soldiers and almost 30,000 wounded. If that's victory it's pretty ugly.

(BTW, you can google and find other cost estimates. They all have one thing in common - they're all really big numbers.)

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, where Bush diverted resources so he could fight Iraq, we're losing.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You can't determine the significance of the war in Iraq by doing some kind of cost analysis. There were some pretty big numbers coming out of the Civil War, World War II and Korea, too, but were those wars not worth fighting? If in a few years the US leaves an Iraq that is a more or less functional democracy with a stable government, that will be a huge accomplishment.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Eric Justin Litebyke said...

You live in the wrong city, the wrong century. The blood of dead bicyclists is on your hands; I don't care that your foolish analysis of Iraq is wrong. My daughter spent six months there and it is in fact the ATTITUDE of Americans off the battle field, not their might, that have swayed many Iraqis into biding their time till we leave.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

And you are a political hysteric. The fact that your daughter served in Iraq gives your opinion no additional weight. So Iraqi terrorists are biding their time until the US leaves? Bullshit. Iraqis don't like asshole car bombers and suicide bombers any more than we do.


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