Iraq, five years later

On occasion of some spring cleaning in my office I stumbled across an old copy of The Economist (April 5-11, 2003) published as the US forces were marching on Bagdad during the invasion that eventually swept Saddam Hussein from power.

I was opposed to that war at the time (it’s not hindsight, you can ask my wife!) and still am, but with the benefit of five years of experience of how things actually turned out it is interesting what the editors had to say then. I still respect the Economist as (overall) a relatively unbiased source of information though I’m no longer a subscriber.

The defect of these comparisons [with Vietnam and Palestine] is that Iraq is nothing like Vietnam, not much like Palestine or Afghanistan, and, on present evidence, no quagmire. (…) In Vietnam the Americans fought for ten years. The Soviet army spent ten years in Afghanistan. This war entered its third week with the Americans battering through Iraq’s Republican Guard divisions to the gates of Bagdad. At this rate, it will be a surprise if the Americans have to fight for ten weeks, let alone ten years. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has lasted for 36 years. If America has its way, its occupation of Iraq is more likely to last for fewer than 36 months. And there is no reason why America should not have its way: unlike Israel and the Palestinians, America and Iraq have no territorial quarrel. America’s stated aim is to remove the regime and its mass-killing weapons, allow the Iraqis to replace their dictatorship with a representative government, and then depart.

Well, those 36 months (3 years) already expired more than two years ago and no departure is in sight yet. Even someone who would (if elected to the highest office in the country) withdraw the troops after roughly twice that time has to face accusations of wanting to “cut and run”, while John McCain is talking about staying in Iraq for a hundred years.

Not only the time scales have shifted: Before President Bush decided to invade Iraq, his country was the only remaining superpower, having lost the Vietnam war but won the cold war. Following September 11 his people and country had an enormous amount of good will on its side from people and governments all over the world. Now the country is bleeding hundreds of billions of tax dollars and hundreds of lives every year in an undeclared war it can’t win. The Iraq war is deeply unpopular at home and abroad, not to speak of Iraq, where tens of thousands have died in the resulting civil war and “ethnic cleansing”.

The biggest winner of the US effort in Iraq so far has been the unfriendly regime in next door Iran, which saw one of its biggest enemies destroyed at the hands of the US, allowing its closest friends and allies to take over in Iraq.

I am looking forward to a new leadership in the White House that will have the courage to face reality: When you’ve taken a wrong turn you don’t then “stay the course”, especially when you’re heading into a dead end.

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