George Bush's War 

Scene writers opine—again

Scene writers opine—again

As war with Iraq was about to commence last February, the Scene asked some of its writers to hold forth on the prospect of this pre-emptive endeavor. At the time, it was the most important issue facing the United States, and perhaps the world. Did we have a national interest in Iraq? Were there weapons of mass destruction? Was Iraq a training ground for terrorists? Could we install a workable government there?

Fourteen months later, it's fair to say that these and other questions are still top-of-mind. If anything, debate has grown even sharper.

With the partisan lines of a presidential race drawn in the sand, nuance has fled. Recent books by Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind and Richard Clarke have heightened public interest. And the ugly turn of the struggle in recent weeks into a guerilla war fought out in urban nooks and crannies has seemed to increase our national anxiety. Photographs of American flags draped over coffins have given us all reason for pause.

Last February, some Scene writers supported the war. Others were adamantly against it. This time around, the anti's are still opposed, but the pro's have grown more skeptical. We offer these views not because we think they're any more relevant than anyone else's but because we feel doing so is as legitimate a way as any to air the spectrum of viewpoints on this divisive issue. Overall, as we place our proverbial finger into the wind, we'd have to guess that we're a lot like the rest of the country: less confident, more wary, increasingly upset.

Presenting our opinions on this matter is not designed to make you change your mind one way or the other. But perhaps it will inspire some to appreciate more fully the complexity of this conflict, the mutability of opinion and how one year can seem like a lifetime.


NOW: For, with reservations

At this stage, only a blind Bush partisan would have absolutely no reservations about our military action in Iraq. I certainly do not align myself with those who insist that America has mired itself in a Vietnam-style "quagmire." (Let's see how things are in another five years before making that particular comparison.) But I do harbor some uneasiness. I am quite disappointed with the Bush administration's seeming reluctance to realize that the failure (thus far) to find weapons of mass destruction is something that gives even hawks like me the willies. Is our intelligence really that faulty? If so, what are we going to do about it? If, on the other hand, there really were WMDs over there at some point (a safe bet in my book), then where are they now? It would be nice if the president would just talk to Americans one evening from the Oval Office and address this issue head-on, but that's apparently too much to ask. Too bad, because silence from the White House on this issue fosters skepticism among the public at large, and I fear that the burden of proof we will have to meet when the next Saddam comes along will be simply unattainable.

This problem notwithstanding, in the purely clinical terms of election-year politics, Iraq remains a net-plus for Bush. The majority of Americans remain supportive of the war, largely because Saddam Hussein, himself a one-man weapon of mass destruction, is gone. Furthermore, a nation is free—temporarily (let's hope) chaotic in a few places perhaps—but free just the same. And other despots in the region, such as Libya's Muammar Qadhafi, are taking notice that we're not kidding around. If George W. Bush loses in November, it won't be because of the war in Iraq.

—Roger Abramson

LAST YEAR: Against, with reservations

NOW: Against, with reservations

Looking at the aftermath of World War II, when American occupation transformed two aggressive, militarist societies into stable democracies, it is easy to be seduced by America's ability to do good in the world. That temptation has produced mixed results—the rollback of the Soviet empire, the half-success in Korea, the failure in Vietnam. In the face of a regime as vile as that of Saddam Hussein, the temptation to send the tanks rolling into Iraq to spread American goodwill was very powerful indeed. But, again, we are seeing some of the limitations of our innocent notion that the Army can make other people love us.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, we were looking for some place where our powerful military would be a relevant response. Iraq never had anything much to do with our security issues, although the despicable nature of the Iraqi regime made it easy to overlook that point, especially given the national need to blow something up as catharsis for the World Trade Center.

We may yet accomplish some good for Iraq and the Arab world, but the shaky leadership to date of President Bush and his top aides hasn't helped and shows little sign of improving. I feel like too much of our policy is the product of the pursuit of political advantage mushed on by vacant hairy-chestedness. It's not exactly the second coming of the Marshall Plan.

—Phil Ashford

LAST YEAR: Against

NOW: Against

Earlier this year, with Iraqi WMDs nowhere to be found, the White House Office of Orwellian Revisionism hustled to give Bush's rush to war an extreme makeover. Spokesman Scott McClellan charged that "Some...have chosen to use the word 'imminent.' Those were not words we used." Yet it was McClellan himself who last year said "this is about imminent threat." In May 2003, asked if Iraq was an "imminent threat," then-White House flack Ari Fleischer replied, "absolutely."

This tidbit of naked mendacity epitomizes the lengths to which Bush and his minions will go to reinvent their unnecessary war, and to nourish a foreign policy built around arrogance, fear and provocation. Let's bury the illusion of measured decision-making and a reluctant resort to war. We now know of Donald Rumsfeld's boast to the Saudis two months earlier, "This is going to happen." We also know, as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency put it, that "sanctions worked, and more importantly, the inspections worked. A combination of sanctions and inspections managed to disarm Iraq."

The war in Iraq is today just as appalling an idea as it was at the start. It has come into focus as the product of a toxic mixture of bad intelligence, self-righteous ambition and wishful thinking. The upside of Saddam Hussein's removal doesn't change the underlying equation. Suppose Bush had said to us last year, "I propose to divert attention from radical Islamist terrorism in order to remove a nasty but essentially unarmed tyrant. Thousands will be killed or maimed, America's diplomatic prestige and credibility will be severely compromised, terrorism will persist and hundreds of billions of dollars that could finance job creation, education, or health care will be squandered." Would there even have been a discussion?

—Bruce Barry

LAST YEAR: For, with reservations

NOW: Against, with reservations

Thirty-five years ago, when moderate politicians started using the word morass, it signaled serious PR trouble for supporters of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The "M" word was on the lips of Sen. Robert Byrd recently, and the latest developments in Iraq make it difficult to envision any truly dignified way out of what looks like a debacle. (The "D" word was also popular during the 'Nam era.) Now, with terrorists killing Iraqi schoolchildren, and no clear hope for imminent internal Iraqi governmental control of the situation, the U.S. definitively finds itself between "Iraq and a hard place." All the debate about why we're in Iraq at all seems irrelevant now that Pandora's Box has been opened: We came, we saw, we may have blundered. Are we idealists or imperialists?

Personal cynicism about the war effort aside, the situation demands a solution, and the idea of bailing and leaving Iraq to its own devices just doesn't seem to be a good option. So we stay...and do what? In business, one is always cautioned about sending good money after bad. In medicine, there's the Band-Aid approach or massive surgery. As long as Bush & Co. have the manpower and the funding, they can continue to police this still-primitive and very sad nation with the hope that the tourniquet will hold until the Iraqi citizenry responds to notions of domestic civility and law-abiding self-rule. Whether that will happen before all hell breaks loose—the recent terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia is not a good omen for the region—is another matter altogether. The knee-jerk assessment is that we made a huge mistake and should cut our losses. But if there's a chance we can make the situation better, we should stay and try to do just that. The fact that this is an election year makes watching all the political and military gamesmanship just that much more interesting.

—Martin Brady


NOW: For

What was the alternative to deposing Hussein?

As long as he stayed—even without WMDs—he remained an indelible part of a destabilized Middle East, capable only of fomenting anti-American rage and scheming about future weapon programs. Aside from all the horrors he delivered on Iraqi citizens, he financed suicide bombers on the West Bank, he gave refuge to terrorists like Abu Nidal, he allowed an embryonic al-Qaeda cell to grow in his northern provinces.

True, Hussein wasn't directly implicated in the 9/11 attacks. But anyone who thinks he wasn't part of the larger crisis of anti-American Middle East tyranny doesn't understand the problem the U.S. faces.

For more than three decades, Republican and Democratic presidents have been ignoring this problem, failing to see the connection between tyranny and terror, or trying to appease it through failed diplomacy. It has only worsened. The war critics seem to believe that 9/11 was an isolated event that could be dealt with by capturing bin Laden and better understanding the Arab plight. I think 9/11 was part of a continuum, stretching from the Munich Olympic massacres through the bombing of the World Trade Center to the attack on USS Cole and now the Madrid train bombing.

The Bush administration can be criticized for misreading the evidence on WMD. (But was it possible to know the truth without regime change?) It also failed to anticipate the problems of post-war Iraq. But unlike its critics, the administration refused to remain indifferent to persistent Arab fanaticism and tyranny, which has become the momentous issue for our civilization.

—Daniel Casse


NOW: For, with reservations

I'm still for this war, although I am hacked off we haven't put enough troops on the ground to keep Iraq under control. I'm also hacked at the pitiful intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. The CIA looks as dumb as dirt.

I think the prosecution of the war itself right now is at its diciest. Plenty of people were worried about the war becoming an urban, guerilla-style conflict, only most thought this would happen in the first weeks and months. But it's happening now, and it's growing very ugly.

We must transfer power and authority to the Iraqis as planned, shift as much authority to the United Nations as soon as possible and get the hell out of there pronto.

I still believe we were right to invade. We needed to depose Saddam Hussein. I think that it was also important to send a strong message to all nations in the Middle East that the region is overdue for a correction—and not just as it relates to al-Qaeda and 9/11. For far too long, Middle Eastern nations have been just fine with state-sponsored terrorism, the torturing and killing of civilians, an obsessive wish to destroy Israel and wipe Jews from the face of the earth, and the plundering of national treasuries by incestuous bands of princes and kings who purport to run these places. Were these nations content to kill only one another, that would be one thing. But their depravity is now boiling over and plaguing the rest of the world. The war had to happen, is happening and will ultimately be over.

Now, one thing I have come to realize, and which I didn't appreciate before, is that whereas Protestants had their own badly needed Reformation in the 16th century, Muslims need one too. People do strange things in the name of God.

—Bruce Dobie

LAST YEAR: Against

NOW: Against

I'm more against this unjust war than ever, but I'm also not sure what the answer is, morally or politically, now that the Bush administration has dragged the U.S. and the rest of the world into its mess. I'm struck increasingly, though, by the parallels between George W. Bush and the dangerous men in Afghanistan and Iraq he vilifies. Like those fundamentalists, the president believes that God is on his side and that anyone who opposes him is evil and therefore a target of his aggression. Like his counterparts, the president asks others to fight and die for him and then tells the rest of us that they gave their lives for an honorable cause. Indeed, the president is so practiced at the art of deception that he made up stories about Iraq's possession of catastrophic weapons to sell his warring bill of goods in the first place. The similarities between George W. Bush's fanaticism and that of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and others like them are so chilling that it's hard sometimes to tell one enemy from another. The real enemy, I fear, is fundamentalism—of any stripe.

—Bill Friskics-Warren


NOW: Against

Two things have changed my mind about the war in Iraq, though mostly the second of these. First, my emotional outpouring for homeless Iraqis and their dead relatives, not to mention grief for our fallen American soldiers, has worked a number on my initial support for an impossibly difficult policy decision. Second, the increasing realization that Islamic fundamentalism can no more be eradicated than roaches, or pokeweed, or teen sex, or marijuana (remember the war on drugs?), has made me believe that this was—and is—a hopeless war, nothing more than blind and ignorant optimism in the face of an utterly intractable force.

The more our firepower targets grungy bands of insurgents, the more they will rise out of the sand to kill our kids and foment anti-American hatred and resentment across the globe. They will always exist. I would love to be wrong, but it seems to me that the possibility of democracy in a place that is culturally worlds removed from our own set of beliefs and rules of civility is remote at best.

Unlike other opponents of this war, I do not believe that President Bush and his advisers are ill-motivated, politically driven, lying sacks of crap. I firmly believe that this president is well-intentioned, but I fear not just failure, but a backlash that history students will be reading about for decades, perhaps centuries, to come. If this war would advance a more peaceful Middle East, that would be one thing. But it appears that such a trajectory is becoming more elusive, not less.

I can't help but think of Soylent Green, in which Charleton Heston's character ultimately discovers that the supposedly life-sustaining food the government has been feeding starving citizens is made from their own dead. Here, the U.S. government proclaims that we're giving Iraqis life and freedom when all they're really getting is death, destruction and chaos—and probably much more to come.

—Liz Murray Garrigan

LAST YEAR: Against

NOW: Against

The Bush people have been right about three big things. The Mideast is mired in medievalism, trapped in dictatorship and racked with frustration. For too long, America has forsaken its principles and supported the dictators. Promoting democracy—the most idealistic, liberal effort in U.S. foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson—might transform the region and deprive the terrorist fire of new fuel.

The Bushoids have been wrong about nearly everything else.

First, they knew that selling the rationale for spreading democracy at gunpoint would be tough. So they didn't try. But they genuinely believed—thanks largely to a separate intelligence group they set up that contradicted our CIA and told them what they wanted to hear—that Saddam had links to al-Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction. Now, they have a serious, self-inflicted credibility problem.

They badly underestimated or baldly lied about the true cost of the war. I still hear Paul Wolfowitz telling Congress that Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction. And I wonder whom they think they're fooling when they refuse even to include any costs for Iraq in the budget.

They dogmatically believed we could manage postwar Iraq with a relatively small force—perhaps the most lethal misjudgment of all. Our military experts predicted all our difficulties since Saddam's fall—looting, infighting, guerrilla attacks—but the administration arrogantly refused to listen. And they punished those, like Gen. Eric Shinseki, who told the truth. They wouldn't even allow the Army's top uniformed officer into planning meetings for postwar Iraq. Had the Bushrods heeded the Army, they'd have known that the real reason for overwhelming force was to ensure order after Saddam fell. Now we're paying a high price for trying to pacify Iraq on the cheap.

Meanwhile, the Bush people are dropping balls in Afghanistan. They were so obsessed with Iraq that they lost focus, even secretly siphoning $700 million (not to count key Special Forces personnel) out of Afghanistan. The central government has no authority outside Kabul, the same warlords whose lawlessness gave rise to the Taliban are now on our payroll and, not surprisingly, the Taliban are coming back like weeds.

The Bushies believed we could go it alone. By disdaining the careful diplomacy of his father and thumbing his nose at the world, Bush is in a pickle. Now, we're realizing that we can't rebuild Iraq without help that alienated allies—including Canada—aren't much inclined to give.

What David Halberstam wrote about "the best and brightest" of the Vietnam era goes double for these guys. They were brilliant, and they were fools.

—Randy Horick

LAST YEAR: Against

NOW: Against

My late and lamented father—a World War II vet—once told me that the best, and probably only, way the citizens of the United States could control which wars they fought was by the passive/agressive device of the military draft. His theory was that if potential G.I. Joes—he didn't anticipate Janes—were democratically selected, then leaders wanting war would have to make a more compelling case than that needed for a force of volunteers who had, in effect, already pre-agreed to military action. Applying Dad's "draft test" to "Iraqi Freedom" gives a whole new meaning to "coalition of the willing."

If there were a draft to suck a random percentage of all the young folks—including premeds and pre-laws, stockbrokers and computer wonks, not to mention Jenna and Barbara—into the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah and Najaf, would they, and their parents, grandparents, congressional repesentatives and senators, still think this war was the right stuff?

Before the draftees and their near and dears answer "Yes," please consider:

♦ The shifting rationales for the war—imminent threat, WMDs, links between Saddam and al-Qaeda—have evaporated, devolving into "the world is better off without Saddam." Of course, the world would be better off without Kim Gong, IL, but then North Korea has no oil.

♦ The military cost of the war—which Bush & Co. refused to even estimate before we went to Baghdad—is running about $4.7 billion a month, with no end in sight. The U.S. companies in Iraq and the Iraqi Governing Council compete for the prize of most corrupt. The U.S. now has a budget of mass destruction, and Greenspan is warning that we must deconstruct Social Security and Medicare to save them.

♦ Our troops have gone from liberators to occupiers, and their generals from the rhetoric of conquest to mutterings about pacification and Iraquification.

♦ The recipe for success was always naive. Put a volatile mixture of Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds and terrorists and clerics in a blender, add Halliburton and lots of American moola, press a button—and out comes democracy?

Despite White House flack-crafted banners proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," the only self-evident truth on the war front at this point is that we're there, and as our less than courageous secretary of state would say, "we own it." The sticker price is still an open question.

—Christine Kreyling


NOW: For, with reservations

The war in Iraq has exacted a far more tragic toll than I envisioned and, looking back, my initial unqualified support for the war was misguided. Having said that, I still don't know what the alternative was. Clearly, just allowing Saddam Hussein, his sons and the Baath Party to continue to remain in power where they slaughtered and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of their own people, subsidized suicide bombers in Israel and threatened their neighbors—if not the United States—was unacceptable. And while it's fair to blame Bush for overstating the case for war and for failing to assemble a real coalition to go into Iraq, it's just as accurate to blame France, Germany and Russia for failing to put any real pressure on Saddam Hussein.

Finally, I think Clinton's failure to deal with al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, the one mistake that more than any other led to 9/11, showed the ill consequences of allowing these kinds of threats to proliferate and foment. If Clinton had engaged himself with Afghanistan—instead of worrying about Bosnia—everything would have been different.

And I don't think the war in Iraq has been a failure. U.S. troops are opening schools, building roads, introducing localized democracy and presiding over a more or less free press. Polls show that Iraqis are glad Saddam Hussein is gone. You don't have to belong to the Baath Party to find employment. And there's clearly been a deterrent effect. Bush scared the hell out of Qadhafi, and you'll never see another Saddam Hussein again sprout up in the Middle East. Syria and Iran are behaving. Ten years from now, Iraq will be a peaceful country with democratic freedoms that doesn't threaten its neighbors and, as the most important country in the Middle East, will serve as a beacon of stability and prosperity. That might just be the catalyst the Middle East needs to catch up to the rest of the world.

Still, more than 700 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq, and the violence and chaos in the Sunni triangle don't look like they will subside soon. After the initial invasion that toppled Hussein, Bush should have reached out to the UN and turned over the occupation, especially since the UN wanted to play more of a role. Bush made a tragic mistake there, and I hold him accountable for that and the lives that were lost because of his arrogance. I don't think John Kerry would have made the same mistake, although I'd like for him to articulate exactly how his approach would have been different.

—Matt Pulle

LAST YEAR: Against

NOW: Against

Naiveté and arrogance are a treacherous combination and, distressingly, the current administration has both in spades—naivety in thinking that a Western-style democracy could be imposed on a region populated by historically warring religious factions, and arrogance in suggesting that we know what's best for the citizens of a country thousands of miles and cultural light years away. The general consensus about President Bush, even among supporters, is that he's a simple man, not inclined to reflection. Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq, and the Middle East in general, is far more complicated, and requires a level of nuance and understanding clearly beyond Bush's and his advisers' grasp.

The magnitude of our government's miscalculations are well-documented, even by a not-so-liberal media that has lobbed softballs at a president who has unilaterally invaded a country based on specious arguments and false assumptions, and who has fomented anti-American sentiment around the world the likes of which have never been seen before.

Perhaps most disturbing, though, is the perception in the Muslim world that we are Christian crusaders, certainly not an unfounded hypothesis. As Bob Woodward wrote in Bush at War, "The president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's Master Plan." The president is quoted as promising "to export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of this great country and rid the world of evil." At times, Bush's good-vs.-evil rhetoric and his close ties with evangelical Christianity suggest a man who sees himself as a player in a Revelations-style biblical prophecy scenario. Sadly, such prophecy can be self-fulfilling.

Even with Saddam in custody, the invasion of Iraq his been an enormous blunder. The notion that there might be anything remotely approaching a democratic society in Iraq in the foreseeable future is a rapidly vanishing pipe dream. What to do now is anyone's guess.

—Jack Silverman


NOW: For, with reservations

Saddam Hussein could have saved us all a great deal of trouble by cooperating with U.N. inspectors and not firing at our patrol planes. Those simple actions would have given us all more diplomatic room, and it is toward him rather than the current American administration that I direct my contempt. Do I wish at this point that we might have waited to invade? Sure, but Hussein made the invasion ultimately unavoidable. I wish with all my heart that Americans and Iraqis were not dying, but we are there, and withdrawal would invite much more chaos and bloodshed than staying. Much of the horror now can be laid at the feet of non-Iraqi terrorists with a vested interest in a destabilized Iraq—or one stabilized by a repressive Muslim government.

We are, unfortunately, inexorably involved in a global conflict with fanatics seeking to impose (worldwide, ultimately) a culture in which freedom of thought and religion are anathema. Iraq is, like it or not, a front in that war, and as tragic as the continuing losses are, we need to continue to work toward stability and Iraqi self-rule. There is much that troubles me about the Bush administration's approach to this and to many things, but there has never in my lifetime been an administration whose approach to many issues didn't trouble me. We are at war. We must continue to discuss and refine the process, but the process must continue.

—Rob Simbeck


NOW: For

A year ago, I suggested that the trajectories of history made war in Iraq inevitable. I take no pleasure in having been correct. Nor do I take pleasure in the continuing struggle—in the sacrifices of lives and in the expenditures of U.S. citizens' treasure—to steer the liberation of Iraq to a peaceful conclusion.

If I was resigned to war one year ago, I have no difficulty admitting today that I resolutely support its decisive prosecution for as long as it takes to pacify Iraq, to rebuild Iraq, to establish Iraq as a beacon of liberality, tolerance and democracy in a benighted region of the world.

Among those who do not share this view, there seems a preponderance of wishful thinking about turning back time to some imprecise period when the choice might have been made not to go to war. As I observed last year, "one may argue...that we...reached the [prewar] diplomatic crisis through blunder and miscalculation." These missteps, however, were the fruits of a dozen-year gestation period marked by international appeasement of Saddam Hussein and by refusal either to confront Baathist provocations or al-Qaeda insinuations into Iraqi affairs.

Hussein is now deposed and imprisoned; Baathist ideology is a shambles; al-Qaeda is manic in its depredations of Iraq. As surely as history rendered war inevitable, progress is inevitable today—so long as the coalition fulfills its promise to scour Iraq of oppressors and to safeguard Iraqis' most basic rights to peace, prosperity and plurality.

—Marc Stengel


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