Yale '62 - Compounding tragedy by Stephen W. Buck

"Compounding tragedy"
Steve Buck
Bethesda, MD

Author's note: I wrote the piece below a day before President Bush's September 7 speech on Iraq. The President was far more realistic about Iraq than he has been in the past and did show a shift in seemingly having finally accepted the need for more real UN involvement. Still, he focused on "rolling back the terrorist threat...at the heart of its power," sticking to the failed premise that Iraq is somehow the center of terrorism. The irony, of course, is that Iraq only became a "terrorist" threat to us after we invaded it and placed ourselves in the position of sitting ducks, given popular resistance to occupation.

On September 8, I attended a conference of longtime Mideast professionals. A distinguished expert, who has spent more than 40 years writing on and visiting Iraq, warned that our overthrowing a highly centralized regime in Iraq and establishing a decentralized system posed high risks, as did replacing a secular system with one based on religious/ethnic representation. What is needed now, she said, is moving quickly to provide security, electricity, water and jobs. The window of opportunity - perhaps 2 to 6 months - is still open, but it could close rapidly if we do not make progress.

An American general who oversaw reconstruction efforts after the Gulf war called for a massive US effort, on the model of the Berlin airlift, to get needed equipment into Iraq to provide basic services. This could happen if we had a coherent plan, vision and widespread international support. I fear our record to date on Iraq gives little basis for optimism.

On September 11, 2001 our daughter Katie looked out the window at NYU and saw the planes crash into the twin towers. She went to the nearest Red Cross center and volunteered for hours. New York rallied and the world rallied behind the U.S.

Where are we two years later? The President has embraced the "war on terrorism." We have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We have killed or captured many key members of al-Qaeda. And we have squandered an enormous amount of world support as we pursued what the administration believed to be overriding national interest. Worse, we have increased resentment against the U.S., and thereby the pool of the very terrorists we are trying to defeat.

After 9/11 President Bush was quick to paint the world as essentially a place of good versus evil, of either "you're for us or against us." He and the neocons in his administration relentlessly pursued any report that would link Iraq with al-Qaeda and 9/11. While with considerable courage the CIA continued to point out that there was no convincing evidence to indicate such a connection and the broader implication that Iraq was behind 9/11, the link has stuck with the American public. According to the September 6 Washington Post, 7 out of 10 Americans believe that it is "at least likely that /Saddam/ Hussein was involved" in the 9/11 attacks.

The Bush administration also relentlessly pushed the idea that Iraq was a threat to the US because it possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet five months after the U.S. invasion, 1200 US military personnel sent to find this great threat have found nothing.

In the run-up to our invasion of Iraq, administration officials talked of bringing "freedom" and "democracy" to Iraq and how toppling Saddam Hussein would have a "domino effect" (sound familiar?). The U.S. "liberators" would be welcomed with open arms by the Iraqi public, democracy would flower in Iraq and spread rapidly in the Arab world. On May 7 upbeat DOD officials predicted that U.S. forces would be down to 30,000 by September.

It is now September and some conservatives are calling for upping our present level of 150,000 troops. The number of dead since President Bush, in flight suit, declared "mission accomplished," is now more than those killed in the invasion and the number of wounded (now over 1000) mounts daily. The cost of the war is likely to be in the hundreds of billions at a time when government agencies in the U.S. are cutting back vital services in the face of mounting deficits.

What went wrong? According to the Sept. 7 Washington Post article, most Americans needed a villain after 9/11 and found it in Saddam Hussein. Never mind that he was not an imminent threat. Never mind that the U.S. has little understanding of Iraq, never mind that George W. Bush campaigned on not getting involved in nation-building and now finds himself enmeshed in completely remaking a millennia-old, complex society while barely able to maintain basic security.

In invading Iraq the Bush administration in the end ignored and berated the U. N. and key allies for not being on board. Now Secretary of State Powell has the onerous task of asking the U.N. and these very allies to come to our rescue in Iraq. It is good that Secretary Powell seems to have prevailed for the moment in the debate on unilateral versus multilateral involvement in Iraq. But this is unlikely to bring much quick relief, and the situation is likely to get far worse.

President Bush continues to portray the war in Iraq as one of "civilization" versus terrorism. This ignores the unfortunate reality that the one thing that unites Arabs is their hatred of foreign control and occupation. The longer U.S. military forces and reservists who are trained to invade, not occupy, remain in Iraq, the more likely they are to incur resentment that goes well beyond "Saddam loyalists." Also, since we apparently are stretched too thin to adequately patrol borders that even under Saddam were porous, we have set ourselves up as convenient targets for the very terrorism our war was supposedly fought to quash.

In Vietnam we fought local nationalism and lost. Iraqis hated Saddam, but they are also fiercely nationalistic. The longer we insist on unilateral US control the more we are likely to fuel resentment and acts against us. Paul Bremer is very able, but the political bodies being set up under his guidance are based on religion and ethnicity. This has proved disastrous in Lebanon. For all its faults, the Baath system, founded by a Muslim and a Christian, was fiercely secular. In sweeping away the Baath, we have also swept away secularism. In the vacuum, we are acquiescing to a political system based on religion and ethnicity - with all the risk that that entails.

What is the way out? Bringing in the UN - with more power than just window dressing - is a good - but late start, but only part of an answer, since Iraqis remain bitter about the hundreds of thousands of children who died under U.N. sanctions.

Alas, our invasion of Iraq has not aided us in the war on terrorism. Our occupation of Iraq is likely to create, as Egyptian President Mubarak predicted, "a hundred Bin Ladins."

Reversing the present deteriorating situation will require skill, diplomacy and a humble appreciation of the complexities of Iraq. It will require avoiding 15-second simplicities about good versus evil. It will require America regaining credibility in the Arab world by ensuring that all aspects of the "Road Map" are adhered to, not just lecturing the Palestinians while looking the other way as Israeli settlements expand.

The war on terrorism, the subject of 9/11, will only be won if we listen more to foreign leaders and populaces, and if we put national interest over the often parochial views of interest groups on foreign policy. We must understand that much Arab and Muslim resentment is not against the U.S., but our policies. In an election year maintaining a balanced policy is likely to be difficult, but not impossible. Paradoxically, the more we focus on "terrorism" as a virus rather than related to complex conditions in the Middle East and resentment over U.S. policy - the more we are likely to lose our "war on terrorism."

Editor's Note: What Steve didn't say in the article was that he spent much of the Spring preparing for daughter Katie's wedding, which joyously linked Palestinian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim families. About two hundred people, including 70 family members attended the June wedding in Tolchester, Maryland. Katie's maternal grandfather is Muslim, grandmother Christian Arab. Groom Adam Abel's father and mother are Jewish and his stepmother is Palestinian/American. Steve says the wedding "was all about making love, not war." The newlyweds are living in Brooklyn. Katie will perform her award-winning one-woman play "Isite" this month at the Middle East Center at CUNY. It is about identity and living between two different worlds.