War is in the air. The nation has been placed on “high” terrorism alert, with warnings about possible chemical or biological attacks by Islamic extremists. Police and military patrols have been stepped up at crowded or sensitive sites. An anti-aircraft missile launcher is parked next to the Washington monument. Many people, especially in big cities like New York where these steps are quite visible, are exhibiting anxiety and fear. Overseas, more than 150,000 Americans in uniform are poised in the Persian Gulf region for a war against Iraq, a dictatorship targeted by the United States for its refusal to destroy all its terror weapons.
But at the same time, paradoxes abound. The president, slashing taxes despite the looming war, says the ailing economy will soon rebound. In fact, it may be the first American warmaybe the first war everwhere, despite the huge cost, the taxpayers will get money back when it’s over. You’ve got to admit, this is the weirdest Armageddon man has ever seen.
Here’s how President Bush says it will work. First, we’ll defeat Saddam Hussein’s military forces with a juggernaut attack from air, land, and sea. The Pentagon estimates this will cost between $100 billion and $200 billion dollars, depending on the war’s duration. Then our military will stay behind in Iraq for another couple of years to clean out all of Saddam Hussein’s loyalists and prepare the country for democracy. This will run up another big bill.
In the meantime, the president will have pushed his latest round of “stimulus” tax cuts through Congress so that the average family in America will have an extra $1000 or $1500 a year in their pockets.
The president does grant that some brave American men and women will die in the Iraq war (and in other “rogue state” regime changes to follow), but he says somberly that they will have given their all for the greater good.
Mr. Bush also acknowledges that his global mission against “evildoers” plus the tax givebacks to our lucky citizens will produce enormous annual deficits and create an unprecedented national debt. He assures us, however, that over time the tax cuts will stimulate such a surge in new investment and jobs that even with the lowered tax tables, the nation’s coffers will be refilled and then some. Neat, huh? But, hey, this is America. We can have it all.
It’s almost too good to be true. In fact, it’s preposterous. But I’ve been reading and listening closely to the texts of the president’s statementsand also those of his confident aidesand this is indeed President Bush’s blueprint. You could look it up for yourself. True, I’ve used some irony to highlight the scenario, but only so as to see it more clearly.
Without any irony, let me say that I served in the army and as a reporter later in life covered two wars up close. And while I know better than to measure a new military mission by the lessons of wars past, I believe it fair to say that Americans have never experienced anything like the undertaking we seem to be embarking on now. It is truly uncharted territory.
Other than to urge the citizenry to stock up on survival supplies such as duct tape, plastic sheeting, radio batteries, and bottled water, our government has asked no sacrifices of the civilian population. No rationing of scarce goods. No call on the nation’s youth for compulsory national service, either in the military or at other essential jobs like teaching or health care work or helping the disadvantaged. National service would make the sacrifice a shared one and would do something actually concrete about “bringing America together”that empty political slogan we get gassed with every four years at campaign time. In brief, if we’re at war, then why isn’t the home front being mobilized?
As someone who remembers World War II from a schoolkid’s perch in a New England mill town, I feel the need to ask: Why aren’t all of us being asked to pitch in? Why is the White House saying nothing about the possibility of hard times ahead?
It’s no wonder so many Americans are confused over how they should feel about initiating a “preemptive” war against Iraq. The language-spinning on all sides has been intense. Almost from the day of the terrorist carnage of September 11, 2001, the president has said that we are at war. But for several months, he never mentioned the Iraqi dictatorship as a suspect. For good reason, since there is still no evidence that the tyrant Saddam Hussein, despicable as he is, played a role in the planning or execution of the suicide attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers. It was the followers of another maniac, Osama bin Laden, nesting in Afghanistan, who threw New York City and all of America into a convulsion of panic, bravery, rage, and mourning on 9-11-01.
Bin Laden and most of his coterie have so far escaped the military and intelligence assaults that Washington retaliated with. From time to time, he taunts America with taped messages, calling on Muslims everywhere to rise against the United States and its ally Israel.
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.