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Many Misgivings

For quite some time I've been trying to collect my thoughts on the war in Iraq. To simplify the question -- are you for the war, or against it? -- is to oversimplify the question. The issue deserves deeper discussion. In fact, it demands deeper discussion.

There are a few things that need to be understood from the beginning. Saddam Hussein is a brutal, despicable monster. The world will be a better place without him. Moreover, it is doubtful that anything short of war will dislodge him.

In the weeks before the war began, I often saw posters stating, in bold letters, "WAR IS NOT AN OPTION." It struck me as absurd: of course war is an option.

I'm not a pacifist. I live with a woman who would quite possibly be dead were it not for a war. My wife, a survivor of Cambodia's killing fields, was freed from a world of servitude and death by an invading foreign army. War isn't an option? Oh, yes, it is.

But is it the best option? That depends.

There are thoughtful people who are opposed to this war, but it seems that the most visible are the least thoughtful. A popular chant among antiwar activists has been "No blood for oil!" But this war isn't about oil. Nor is it about imperialism -- at least, not imperialism in the conventional sense, whereby the imperial power appropriates the wealth of the subjugated country. Among the war's proponents, this is seen as a war of liberation.

So, Hussein is evil, war is a viable option for removing him, and antiwar protestors are simply chanting nonsense... well, then, war it is, right?

No. Not this war.

Setting aside moral questions for the moment, consider a purely pragmatic axiom: a war is only good if you can win it. To win it, you must know your objective. When is the war over? When do you declare victory and go home?

I do not believe that George Bush has an attainable objective. I don't think he will know when to go home. And I don't think he understands how many lives will be lost, even if the result is -- in his eyes -- a resounding victory.

A war of liberation is only a success if the population is genuinely liberated. Replacing one despotic regime with another is not liberation; it's just alteration.

Getting rid of Hussein would be a wonderful thing. The main problem, however, is that Bush has approached the crisis in a way that has turned much of the world against us. Moreover, it seems doubtful that anyone in the Bush administration has a clue what to do once Hussein is gone. It also seems obvious that the administration is badly underestimating the potential for lingering guerrilla activity even after the war has "ended."

But aside from the claims of altruistic concerns for the Iraqi people, Bush also maintained that Hussein posed a grave threat to U.S. security. Al Qaeda poses a grave risk to U.S. security; that's undeniable. But Hussein? That is pure speculation, and not very convincing speculation at that. The administration has provided no solid evidence linking Hussein to Al-Queda. And there is a very real difference between Al Qaeda and Hussein: Hussein is not a fundamentalist. Al Qaeda is an organization of fanatics, driven by religious fervor. They live in a fantasy world; devoted to a heavenly kingdom, they have no fear of consequences in the here and now. Hussein, by contrast, is a garden-variety despot, a man who has used his power to enrich himself. The fanatics of Al Qaeda have nothing to lose. Hussein has everything to lose: his wealth, his palaces, his cult of personality. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction, useless against Al Qaeda, would have likely been quite effective in containing Hussein.

Now that the war has been underway for (at this writing) a week, the administration is backpedaling furiously, denying that they ever claimed that victory would come swiftly. And yet virtually every article written within the last few days has featured American soldiers, expressing shock at the ferocity of the resistance they've encountered.

This is simply incredible: why on Earth did anyone believe that the Iraqis would not fight back? And even more incredible than the belief that they would not fight back, many in the administration seemed to think that the arrival of U.S. troops would persuade the population to rise up and overthrow Saddam. This belief demonstrates an ignorance of history that is absolutely breathtaking. Here, I feel compelled to make a few comparisons to Cambodia. The question at hand is, under what circumstances will a population rise up to overthrow a brutal regime?

There has probably been no regime in modern history that was more hated by its subjects than the Khmer Rouge. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, they were hailed as liberators... in spite of the fact that Vietnam was, to most Cambodians, the country's historic enemy.

And yet, despite the genuine gratitude of the population, the Vietnamese soon found themselves bogged down in a guerrilla war. Certainly, some of that had to do with the policies pursued by the Vietnamese. The main factor, however, was simply that they were Vietnamese. The people hated the Khmer Rouge... but the Khmer Rouge were at least Khmer. The Vietnamese were perceived as opportunists, bent on an imperial conquest.

Imperialism... we've heard that somewhere before, haven't we?

The US will face this same problem once Hussein is gone. People may be grateful, but they won't be so grateful that they won't shoot the first American who overstays his welcome. And the welcome mat doesn't stay out for long.

But to return to the broader question: under what circumstances will people rebel against a dictatorship? People almost never do that. They don't want to be shot, they don't want to be starved, they don't want to be tortured. But I believe that most people are passive in this sense: they want to be left alone. Quite sensibly, they don't want to have to fight with their bare hands against soldiers armed with AK-47s.

Analysts who predict these types of uprisings are blinded by their ideology. Consider General Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam: for all his military brilliance, he miscalculated badly with the Tet offensive. He truly believed that peasants in the south would "rise up" and fight alongside his forces once they saw that the Americans were not invincible. They didn't. In the broader strategic sense, Tet was still a success because it broke the Americans' will to fight. But Giap actually believed that it was going to be a battlefield victory, in part because he believed that it would incite a spontaneous rebellion.

And on the subject of the Tet offensive, it's worth reminding ourselves of what should have been an obvious lesson: although the guerrillas lost every battle, eventually losing every bit of territory that they seized during Tet, and wasting the lives of thousands of their soldiers in the process, Tet was still a success. How many people will die in Iraq before the Bush administration relearns a thirty-five-year-old lesson? Remember the primary axiom of guerrilla warfare: a guerrilla army wins simply by not losing.

It seems obvious that the Bush administration underestimated the willingness of the Iraqis to fight for Hussein. After all, why would they fight for a despicable tyrant? Maybe the only reason they need is that he is their tyrant. They fought for him against the Iranians. One would expect that, given the terrible state of the country, the Iraqis would hate Hussein deeply. But how much of Iraq's misery do they blame on Hussein? During the Iran-Iraq war, he could blame the country's woes on the Iranians. After the fiasco of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he got a new scapegoat: the U.S.

One would think that this would have been considered by the Bush administration. Maybe the Iraqis hate Hussein, but they hate the U.S., too. A few commentators have written about the fear of the U.S. of being drawn into urban warfare, and they've invoked Stalingrad as an example of the horrors of such close combat. Stalingrad provides an excellent historical example here, and not just because it demonstrates the horrible toll of house-to-house fighting. In defending Stalingrad, the Russians were defending the regime of Josef Stalin. They fought against overwhelming odds, successfully... and they did it to preserve a totalitarian dictatorship that was every bit as brutal as the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Before dragging the U.S. into a supposed war for democracy in Iraq, wouldn't it have been wise to show that we're actually capable of implementing democracy in a country that lacks a democratic tradition? In Afghanistan, for example? Does anyone in the Bush administration remember Afghanistan? The Taliban are gone, and that is truly cause for celebration... but the country isn't really a functioning democracy yet, is it? Bush might claim that he has sown the seeds for democracy. I don't think I'd put it quite that way. It's a little more like spitting the seeds of an apple that you've just eaten onto the bare dirt, and then claiming that you've planted the field.

And while we're on the subject of the memory of the Bush administration... it would seem that Bush remembers the first Gulf War. But does he remember Vietnam? Does he remember that this country went in professing lofty goals, and ending up destroying entire villages in order to save them? Does he remember that this country was soundly defeated by one of the poorest nations on the face of the Earth? If he did, surely he would have thought twice about his adventure in Iraq.

If Bush has any understanding of building -- or maintaining -- alliances, he hasn't shown it. It's as if he believes that an "ally" is someone who does what they're told to do.

The Bush administration has boisterously proclaimed that they have no need for the approval of the international community in matters of national security. What Bush doesn't seem to understand is that by flouting the international community, he is actively undermining national security. Every time the U.S. arrogantly acts on its own, Bush strengthens the hand of the hardliners and fanatics who oppose U.S. policy everywhere, and weakens the position of moderates and allies.

Bush seems to think that it doesn't matter what other nations think of us. It does. Is it better to be surrounded by friends, or enemies? Arrogance will only buy us an unending supply of ill will. He wonders why the world hates us, and then eschews diplomacy in favor of a policy of brute force.

Do I think the U.S. will win this war? I think that the U.S. will capture Baghdad. But what then? Are the Iraqis going to suddenly love us?

I'm reminded of a moment in Thomas Friedman's book From Beirut to Jerusalem. An Israeli taxi driver, speaking of the Palestinian intifada, offered his solution to the conflict: "We should take our clubs and hit them over the head, and hit them and hit them and hit them, until they finally stop hating us." There, in a nutshell, is the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Bruce Sharp, March 28, 2003

Other articles on Iraq and the Bush administration:
My Exasperated Unendorsement for President (May 2004)
Saigon Lesson Plan (October 2005)
Residual Talking Points (November 2005)
Jagged Rocks (June 2006)
Starting from Zero (April 2007)

And while we're on the subject of neo-conservatives:
Andy? Is That You? (October 2006)