Bush's Fairy Tale World

A War Where You Get Your Money Back

The Bush administration now claims that Saddam Hussein and bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement have connections, and that anyway they are part of the same global problemthe threat to world stability posed by rogue nations and terrorist organizations. Few nations dispute the threat. The debate is over how to deal with it.

Is Iraq the most serious and immediate threat? The Central Intelligence Agency tells us that, unlike Iraq, North Korea already has a handful of nuclear weapons plus the long-range missiles to deliver them to Alaska, Hawaii, or our West Coast (though these missiles have yet to be tested). That's probably why Pyongyang isn't Bush's first choice for a shooting war. Pakistan has nuclear weapons andaccording to a CIA report delivered to the White House last June (see Seymour Hersh's story in the January 27 issue of The New Yorker)has been sharing "sophisticated" nuclear technology with North Korea since 1997. Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province is also a harbor and staging area for the Al Qaeda and Taliban forces that escaped U.S. troops and bombs in Afghanistan last year. But Pakistan avoids being labeled a rogue nation because it is one of Washington's putative allies in the war against terrorism, so the Bush administration has played down the many blemishes on the relationship.

And then there's Saudi Arabia. Money out of that kingdom is a major funding source for bin Laden and his Al Qaeda cells. But Washington has military bases in Saudi Arabia and still needs its oil, having for decades consciously shunned any aggressive program to make the U.S. energy-independent.

The paradoxes and contradictions are like the endless, shifting sands of the desert. If over the years you've played footsie with a multitude of rogues in the geopolitical balance-of-power game, when blowback happens, it can be difficult to choose which one to go to war with first.

Which brings us to the winner of the beauty pageant, Iraq. Unless Saddam Hussein agrees to go into exile or is deposed in a coup very soon, we are told that intense bombing and Special Forces' lightning raids will commence. Washington analysts believe that Saddam Hussein, knowing that his final defeat is certain, would then unleash a scorched-earth response, spewing Baghdad's lethal chemical and biological arsenal on American ground troopsand on any other enemy within his reach.

Let us assume an eventual American victory. What, then, comes afterward in Iraq? Bush officials went before a Senate committee last week and offered the first blueprint; they said it would take a little more than two years for our occupation forces to turn over a reviving Iraq to a new set of government leaders. To me, the two-year timetable sounds like a fairy tale. Even a five-year plan defies what we know from history.

As a foreign correspondent, I spent long periods both in democracies (India, Ceylon) and dictatorships (Pakistan, Indonesia). I witnessed one countryCambodiagutted by war and genocide, with most of its leadership class, including its Buddhist monks, simply erased by the Khmer Rouge. More than a decade later, around 1990, the United Nations came into Cambodia in a big way with a rebuilding plan. Several billion dollars were spent, and a respectable job was done of producing the country's first free elections. Now another decade has passed. Cambodian democracy is still embryonic. The country is largely dysfunctional, the government ineffectual when it is not being corrupt. It will take at least another generation, maybe two, before we'll be able to tell if Cambodia is on its way to health and stability.

Two years to put Iraq on a democratic footing? The Bush administration is blowing smoke. And while it's understandable that the president and his team want to put the best face on their war plan, they owe the American public something better than smoke. The Iraqis have never known democracy. Many of them may not desire it. Simply put, there's no way you can in two years transform a tribal, religiously divided, feudal police state into a fledgling democracy.

There are two questions here. First, is the Bush administration committed to this "regime change" for the long haul? The long haul means staying in Iraq for several years and footing a big chunk of the billenough money to create schools for all Iraqis and a justice system and decent public health facilities and a stable currency and an independent press. Almost none of this democratic infrastructure exists in Iraq today. And even less will exist after a war.

The second question is whether the Bush administration, the most secretive in memory, is willing to talk straight to its own people here at home. Right now, little flows from the White House but the fog of spin-meistering. This fundamentalist president may truly believe he is on a God-given mission. But as George W. Bush himself says, this is a critical juncture in world history. And because it is, the voters of the most powerful nation need some human explanationseven if those explanations paint a true world of grays, rather than the misleading simplicity of black vs. white, good vs. evil.

We are in new terrain, with it becoming clearer by the day that devastating weapons may be out of the bag. Americans can rise to challenges, but not if you try to con them into thinking they can be masters of the universe without pain.

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