You Break It, You Buy It

by Robert Herold
Despite the chilling demonization of war skeptics by the likes of draft-evader Tom Delay and his jingoistic Republican right wing, all should applaud the fall of Saddam Hussein. And most do, except for those who can't abide the possibility that a Bush-led America might have done something -- anything -- right. I refer to the wearisome Vietnam-era antiwar types who, frankly, seem lost in time.

And while we hope and expect those "weapons of mass destruction" can be found, already the troops have discovered evidence of atrocities far worse than we thought. Put another way, Saddam Hussein was no Ho Chi Minh. While one can have concern about the long-term consequences of an invasion justified by guesswork, why would anyone object to the forcible overthrow of a murderous, sadistic dictator whose hero was Stalin?

The Hussein regime, as many predicted, tried fighting this war with a military force that lacked rooks, bishops and even knights. They had only eight unreliable pawns led, not by a queen, but by a single tyrant. And can't we all rest easier knowing that American military technology, training and manpower proved once again that it can trample a third-rate, highly unpopular dictatorship and do it with a minimal loss of life? (No Normandy beachhead here.) Which leads, of course, to the next, more complex question: What now? It is this question that continues to concern the less idealistic, less ideological.

Paul Wolfowitz, the idealist, says that we have been watching the power of the democratic idea in action. An observer drawn to more obvious if not nearly so sweeping conclusions might suggest that in any of these cheering crowds, for every prospective candidate for office, we will find many looters, even more whose plans for retribution can now go forward, another couple of dozen who see opportunities in the making and many, many others who just kind of showed up. We would all like to be assured that the Bush postwar scenarios -- and more important, his budgets -- have taken all this untidiness into account. On the other hand, how could they possibly take all this into account?

As to what America has wrought, Chris Matthews put it succinctly the other night on his program Hard Ball, when he paraphrased the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, saying "If you break it, you buy it. We have bought Iraq."

No doubt this will come as a big surprise to the American public, informed largely through White House press releases, co-opted embedded journalists and televised sound-and-light shows. But the fact remains: The Bush Administration has effectively bought Iraq. The U.S. has no other option. We cannot now abandon Iraq, nor, given the circumstances of the invasion, even shortchange Iraq.

But we do prefer to move on, don't we? The smoke's still coming out of the barrel in Iraq, yet we're already talking about Syria and Iran. And when was the last time you read anything about how things were going over in Afghanistan? Today, the official Afghan government -- our guys -- preside only over Kabul. But who cares? Afghanistan is old news.

As regards Iraq, Bush must continue caring, even if it means reducing domestic spending. The world will continually remind him that his was a war of choice, not of response. Moreover, the Geneva Conventions speak to the obligations of occupying forces, as are the world's human rights groups. Wolfowitz continues to downplay the challenges. The other day he reiterated his belief that we come as liberators and won't stay a moment longer than necessary. Put in the context of all that rubble, dislocation and pending political turmoil, such blithe statements appear to minimize U.S. resolve to go the distance required to rebuild Iraq. All those Marines telling reporters they're just anxious to get it over with so they can go home? Guess again. Five to 10 years is what many more sober analysts are predicting.

To make our challenges more difficult, we continue to struggle with a stagnant economy. The fall of Saddam has thus far received more applause from the Iraqis than from Wall Street.

Thus the seriousness of a recent poll that shows only 20 percent of the American public favors aid to Iraq if that aid results in cuts to domestic programs, as it most certainly will and already has. With the presidential election looming, how will Bush deal with such misgivings? More spin? More propaganda? More demonization? Smoke and mirrors? Can the president stand in the pits and make a case? We'll see.

If past is prologue, we are fast approaching the moment in our morality play where Clint Eastwood, having blown away the bar room full of bad guys, including the worst of the worst, the sheriff played by Gene Hackman, mounts his horse and rides out of town. He pauses long enough to warn the townspeople that he will come back and kill anyone who harms any of the prostitutes. But as Clint rides off, we should be struck -- but likely weren't -- by the girls. They remain, after all, still prostitutes and stuck in that ratty little town.

This scene from Unforgiven illuminates the difference between the world as viewed by the architect of the war, Wolfowitz, and the world as viewed by many Europeans and a good number of Americans worried about Bush's postwar plans. Wolfowitz sees the bad guys dead on the floor and feels triumphant and hopeful. But if Europeans and other skeptics were writing the script, the movie would be quite different. Instead, it would be a tragedy, with the plot following what happens to those prostitutes in that ratty little town; the liberation would be just the opening scene.

Publication date: 04/17/03

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