Accomplished? On May 1, President Bush triumphantly proclaimed the end of combat operations, and he did it with a theatrical flourish. Attired in a Navy flight suit, the former Air National Guard trainee (Bush had actually cut short his flight training to participate in a political campaign) landed ceremoniously on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off San Diego. Bush emerged from the plane under a banner stretched across the carrier’s super structure. “Mission Accomplished” the banner exulted. “We have difficult work to do in Iraq,” the president said. “Parts of that country remain dangerous…The War on Terror continues.” But, he went on, “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
But a growing opposition thought otherwise. Rumsfeld had assured Bush that the war could be fought on the cheap. Once the productive Iraqi oil fields were up and running, they would more defray the costs of the war and the occupation. (As of spring 2008, Iraqi oil production was still below prewar output.) A streamlined military force brandishing high-tech equipment would be all that was needed. American forces could be reduced and hand off the job to Iraqis.
When Lieutenant General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, told Congress that “something in the order of several hundred thousand” military personnel would be needed, Rumsfeld was outraged. The Army’s top officer was hounded into retirement. The Pentagon leadership pointedly refused to attend the customary retirement ceremony.
And Americans were dying. Bremer and the CPA, mostly made up of young and inexperienced recent college graduates but with impeccable political credentials, holed up in the heavily fortified and protected area of Baghdad, the Green Zone.
Beyond, chaos and danger reigned. Snipers picked off individual soldiers. Roads were sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which were designed to blow up and destroy the unprotected undercarriage of military vehicles when they passed over. Personnel carriers were only lightly armored, another money-saving policy. Besides, heavy armor was unnecessary, it was thought, with Iraq conquered and the population friendly. Troops took to fashioning their own armor from scrap metal or persuaded families back home to provide it to them.
The Bombing of a Shrine. When Baghdad fell, Saddam Hussein was nowhere to be found. As the coalition rounded up other former government leaders on their “Most Wanted” list, the supreme leader’s whereabouts remained a mystery. Then, seven months after his statue fell in December 2003, a disheveled and filthy Hussein was discovered cowering in a tiny subterranean dugout — a “spider hole,” his captors called it — near his birthplace of Tikrit. The all-powerful dictator who once had thirty-seven palaces was living in a few cubic feet underneath a mud hut. Bush immediately went on television to trumpet his capture, “I say to the Iraqi people, ‘You will not have to live in fear of Saddam ever again.'” But elsewhere, there was little to crow about.
Even the commander of U.S. ground forces acknowledged that a “low-key, guerrilla-type war” was underway. Suicide bombers blew themselves up in marketplaces, city squares, offices, buses, and crowded streets, often taking as many as 100 fellow Iraqis with them. In one horrifying instance, 140 Shiites enjoying a Shia festival were blown up. Terrorist explosives reduced to rubble one of the most treasured shrines of Shia Islam, the Golden Mosque of Samarra with its gleaming dome, setting off a countrywide wave of violence between Sunnis and Shiites. Trying to quell the rising insurgency that was morphing into a civil war. U.S. troops fought pitched battles with Shiite militia in the teeming Sadr City district of Baghdad. A month later, they were fighting Sunni insurgents for the city of Falluja.
Misled by the Iraq National Congress’s belief that Iraqis were united by their hatred of Hussein, American leaders had vastly underestimated the long standing enmity between the rival Muslim factions. Meanwhile Bremer had undertaken to exterminate root and branch all vestiges of Hussein rule. He outlawed Hussein’s Baath party and barred all members from the government payroll, even low-level clerks and drivers who had joined the party simply to protect their jobs. “DeBaathification” eliminated much of the trained bureaucracy and brought normal government function to a standstill so that even mailing a letter became difficult.
Another Bremer edict disbanded the Iraqi army. Four hundred thousand angry trained soldiers were suddenly turned onto the streets with no jobs or income, to demonstrate or bitterly join the insurgency-where, at least, they would be fed.
The army was the only organization that could bring any kind of order to the country and perhaps stop the widespread looting, Bremer’s predecessor, an appalled General Garner noted. “You can get rid of an army in a day, Jerry,” he told Bremer. “It takes years to build one.” (Bremer was to claim afterward that he didn’t disband the army; it had simply “dissolved.” And he said he took his action only after consulting the Pentagon.)
Despite these setbacks and growing antiwar sentiment, Bush was elected for a second term in 2004 and promised to prosecute the war until “victory.” After the election, Powell went to the White House and submitted his resignation. He had, he insisted, always intended to serve only one term. Bush made no effort to keep him.
“We had a good and fulsome discussion,” Powell said in a press briefing afterward. “We came to the mutual agreement that it would be appropriate for me to leave at this time.” Washington interpreted that as diplomatic double speak for “We aired our disagreements in loud and angry voices.”
Where are those WMDs? The bits of broken crockery that the “Pottery Barn Rule” had predicted continued to accumulate. David Kay, named to head a diligent search to find those hidden weapons of mass destruction, failed to turn up a single specimen after two years of looking. Nor could he uncover any evidence of any advanced plans to develop them. The best he could document were a few vials of anthrax powder kept in scientists’ home refrigerators as souvenirs after the first Gulf War.
The aluminum tubes said to be designed for enriching and weaponizing uranium were actually for use in unforbidden short-range missiles. The deal to buy yellow-cake uranium from the African nation of Niger, mentioned by Bush in his State of the Union address, was a hoax. No evidence could be found of supposed meetings in Prague between Al Qaeda operatives and Iraqi diplomats.
Then came the revelation — with graphic, almost stomach-turning photos — that American soldiers had mistreated and tortured prisoners in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. The Congressional cry to take the troops out grew to a roar. Democratic candidates swept the House and Senate in the 2006 elections. With Bush’s popularity sinking to the low 20s in the polls, other Republicans stumbled over each other in haste to distance themselves from the president. Rumsfeld was finally fired, and the Iraq Study Group, an elite panel of Washington wisemen co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, normally a Bush acolyte, deemed the Iraq situation “grave and deteriorating.”
Instead of withdrawing troops, however, a defiant Bush increased them. The “surge” of 30,000 reinforcements announced in 2007 was supposedly to allow the shaky, Shiite-controlled Iraqi government time and cover to solve contentious issues–such as sharing oil revenue and regional autonomy–and to train a viable army.
“As they stand up, we will stand down,” Bush repeated, almost like a mantra. In the new army’s first test of standing up, Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki ordered an attack on Shiite militias in the port city of Basra. More than 1,000 recruits deserted or fled the battlefield and had to be rescued by U.S. troops and airpower, with a ceasefire brokered by Iran.
Meanwhile, the country that Bush still insisted was the front fine in the “war on terror” lay in shambles, along with the lives of twenty-five million citizens. Except for the Kurdish-held north and the “Green Zone” headquarters of the coalition, no part of the embattled nation could be considered secure. (Later, in the spring of 2008, incessant rocket attacks shattered the supposed safety of the Green Zone.) Cities cleared of resistance by coalition offensives frequently fen back into chaos when the troops moved on. Historic Baghdad, the fabled city of flying carpets and Arabian Nights, was a nightmare of suicide bombing, IEDS, and ruins, with one million impoverished residents in ‘Sadr City,’ a Shiite enclave and a law unto itself.
More than one and a half million Iraqis, by official estimate, had fled, most of them huddled in squalid quarters in the unwelcoming cities of neighboring Jordan and Syria. Another estimated two million were displaced within the country, fleeing wrecked homes to crowd in with relatives or live in makeshift tent villages. Much of the educated population of what had once been the most developed country in the Middle East had decamped, including 12,000 of the country’s 34,000 physicians. Living conditions for those remaining were abysmal. Whole neighborhoods were without adequate sewage or water.
In July 2007, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Congress that most Iraqi cities had electricity only one to two hours a day. On the fifth anniversary of the war, the nation’s electric grid was still producing less than 5,000 daily megawatts of power, less than when the war started. Iraqis faced a scorching summer when 11,000 megawatts would be the daily minimum. In oil-rich Iraq, oil to power generating plants was in short supply. The bulk of it was being shipped abroad, the Iraqi government’s only source of revenue. And an estimated 35 percent of the population was unemployed.
The repeatedly fought-over city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, was a classic example of the war’s devastation. Once a thriving city of 450,000, its surviving population was estimated in 2007 at fewer than 50,000. Eighty percent of the buildings had been damaged in the fighting; half of them were completely destroyed. Half of the homes were gone. Those that remained were largely without water, electricity, or sewage. There were no operating schools. Buildings had been stripped by looters, including floor tiles and window frames. Once Falluja had been known as “the city of mosques,” with more than 200 glittering temples of worship. Only 60 remained intact.
The estimates of “collateral damage”-the Pentagon euphemism for civilian and noncombatant casualties-varied wildly. In 2007, the Iraqi Ministry of Health gave a low figure of 151,000 Iraqis killed from war-related causes between February 2003 and June 2006. A survey published in the British medical journal Lancet estimated 600,000 “excess” deaths-those above the normal attrition of population-for the period 2003-2006. An Opinion Research Bureau report estimated the war had caused 946,000 to 1,033,000 violent deaths. In one survey, researchers asked individual Iraqis if they had a civilian relative or friend who had been a war casualty. Eighty percent of those interviewed said yes.
One unlamented casualty was Hussein. After a tumultuous trial marked by raucous shouting at the judges of the special tribunal, the onetime strong man was unceremoniously hanged for ‘crimes against humanity’ on December 30, 2006. Reactions predictably ranged from cheering to anger. And yet the fighting went on. And on.
In December 2005, Bush at last admitted that some intelligence on which the war had been fought was “wrong.” But so what? Bush insisted that the war was worthwhile and the decision to bring down Hussein was “the right thing to do.” He would have made the same decision even if he had known more. Powell, the obedient soldier, kept silent while writing his memoirs and giving motivational speeches. But in 2007, he finally apologized for the United Nations speech. “The intelligence I was given turned out to be inaccurate,” he told Barbara Walters. “That will always remain a blot on my record.”
The Historic Record. In 1971, Henry Kissinger asked Chinese foreign minister Zhou En-lai the historical impact of the French Revolution of 1789. “Too soon to tell,” En-lai responded.
In the lame duck months of Bush’s presidency, in the midst of an election campaign, and with his popularity ratings cratering, by En-lai’s reckoning, it is at least 200 years too soon to assess Bush’s impact on history, and especially the Iraq invasion.
But writers, historians, politicians, office-seekers, and the world are trying already to size up the eight Bush years. Some contend that Bush is simply “an amiable dunce” (as Clark Clifford dubbed Ronald Reagan), readily manipulated by Vice President Cheney, former Secretary Rumsfeld, and his political Svengali Karl Rove. They say Bush is a president out of the loop, whose priorities were cutting brush on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and getting a good night’s sleep. Many Europeans share that view and believe Bush has destroyed the world’s trust in the United States–trust that will take decades to rebuild. Others regard the Bush administration as visionary-the first to recognize an impending “clash of civilizations,” and begin to prepare America for it. And meanwhile, to fight a preemptive war before the terrorist enemy got stronger.
How will the decision to invade Iraq be judged 50, 100, 200 years from now? How will Bush’s record be written in the twenty-third century? Where is Zhou En-lai when we need him?
The above is an excerpt from the book Failures Of The Presidents: From The Whiskey Rebellion And War Of 1812 To The Bay Of Pigs And War In Iraq
by Thomas J. Craughwell with M. William Phelps
Published by Publisher; September 2008;$19.95US/$21.95CAN; 978-1-59233-299-1
Copyright © 2008 Author
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of several books, most recently How the Barbarian Invasions Shaped the Modern World (Fair Winds Press, 2008) and Stealing Lincoln’s Body (Harvard University Press, 2007). He has written articles on history, religion, politics, and popular culture for the Wall Street Journal, American Spectator, and U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Bethel, Connecticut.
Journalist, lecturer, and historian M. William Phelps is the author of eleven books, including his most recent, Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy (Thomas Dunne Books, 2008). He lives in Vernon, Connecticut.