Moments like the present offer a strange sense of suspension on the edge of a precipice. War is 99 percent inevitable. Yet I keep thinking, what if? Surely… But…
Forty-eight hours offers a million opportunities to leave the road we are on. But it is a road that Bush and Cheney chose long ago, and these are not the sorts of men to suffer 11th-hour pangs of remorse for unnecessary bloodshed.
The nation — and the world — know that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous dictator. The moral or strategic logic that makes this precise moment the time to depose him remains obscure, however. And in that obscurity we are forced back on the suspicion that the timing, for Bush, is a matter of political convenience (first war, then 2004) and logistical efficiency (can’t have a quarter of a million troops sitting around idly, losing morale). And those seem like poor reasons to begin dropping thousands of bombs and killing thousands of people.
The president’s speech tonight, full of the rhetoric of “liberty and peace,” was suffused with an almost millenarian triumphalism, an attitude of certainty in U.S. victory that is no doubt borne out by the superiority of American weaponry and power and that, yet, to anyone with a sense of the twists of history, seems fatuously arrogant. War is rarely easy; the speed of the victories in 1991 Kuwait or 2001 Afghanistan was, historically, the exception, and there is no guarantee that every future American campaign will be as fast or as painless to Americans. Overconfidence breeds disaster.
When you go in assuming easy victory, even the slightest setback feels enormous. President Bush has not prepared the ground for setbacks; he has not assumed the necessary burden of wartime leadership, whether through marshalling support for his plans overseas or through justifying his policies at home. Heaven help him — and us, the electorate that did not really elect him — if the road is longer or rougher than he and his team promise.
He has offered us a handful of weak words in place of a persuasive case; he has shuffled from one justification to another, shifting goals as the diplomatic climate altered; he has resorted to half-truths and outright lies and insulted the nations of the world by providing evidence that crumbled upon close inspection; and he has utterly failed to play a strategic game that looks beyond the next move. In the name of protecting the U.S. from terror attacks, he is launching us on a campaign of imperialism; in smashing open Saddam Hussein’s dormant nest of horrors, he will spread the seeds of destruction to a thousand new plots.
These are not just vague, eve-of-war fears. In a Fresh Air interview tonight that I can only describe as “dreadful,” in the primal meaning of the word, CIA historian Thomas Powers put details on the face of these fears. He predicted, as everyone does, a swift U.S. victory in a month or so. Then a couple months of calm. Then, a gradual awareness: That this project of installing a client government in Iraq, even in the sunniest of outcomes, must last a generation or more. That hundreds of thousands of American troops have now become sitting-duck targets for suicidal terrorists who will have no need to hijack a plane to access their foes. That these troops will now sit on the border with another “axis of evil” enemy, Iran, which, like Saddam’s Iraq, also seeks nuclear weapons. That this war, like Bush’s larger “war on terrorism,” has no clear definition of its aims, its scope or its foes — and that such a war has no end in sight and can have no victory.
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