Who lost Iraq?

During the Cold War, it was customary to ask "Who lost China?" forgetting that China may not have been ours to lose. There were recriminations against State Department officials who were experts on China and had questioned U.S. policy involving the Chinese civil war.

Is it too early to ask "Who lost Iraq?" I don’t think so. The question is inevitable. This week, in a series of columns, I will analyze what went wrong and who is responsible.

I am not scapegoating anyone. But someone has to be held responsible. We can’t merely allow the loss of lives and tax dollars to be written off like so many bookkeeping errors. To quote Willy Loman, "Attention must be paid."

There was a heady air in Baghdad when I arrived in April. Saddam had fled, the city had surrendered. Mass death and destruction had been avoided. And then it all started: the looting, the destruction, the Ali Babas. Baghdad was re-enveloped almost as soon as it was "liberated."

We need to look at two sets of chronologies: the prewar time line, and the postwar time line.

Prewar, the president said he would not pay attention to the protesters. I bet he wishes he had. George Bush’s presidency is endangered because of bad advice and bad decision making on Iraq. To deny the obvious–the evidence of endangerment–is to insult the intelligence.

My own views straddle the divide between opponents and supporters. I was a prewar opponent of the war in Iraq. I never felt the gains could outweigh the potential losses. I marched against the war.

Here it is critical to distinguish between gains for Iraqis and gains for Americans and American foreign policy. I never doubted that if the war went forward, sooner or later Iraqis would eventually derive some benefit from the removal of Saddam. Iraqis were not strong enough to do the job themselves. I think history will bear out that Iraqis will be thankful someone waged a war, however ill-advised, to free them. They will benefit.

But the war was never fought to benefit Iraqis, President Bush’s post hoc representations notwithstanding. We are not in the business of benefiting foreigners. We are in the business of implementing American foreign policies and putting our national interests first. Here I think the conclusion is ineluctable: the war in Iraq will be seen as a tragedy and disaster for America, "another Viet-Nam," though not in the same bloody manner as Viet-Nam.

Neo-conservatives promised removing Saddam would free the Middle East, defeat terrorism and intimidate the Palestinians into surrendering to Israel. None of his has happened. From America’s point of view, things are now somewhat worse, and getting even worse.

We have a large Army (though too large in my opinion) tied up in Iraq, attacking civilians and seeking to root out a handful of "enemies" while antagonizing 24 million people, as well as much of the rest of the world. These are not numbers I would take to the race track. Or stock market. The numbers are bad because they were always bad.

The professional American military, the Pentagon if you will, was always against this war, almost vehemently so. The war was waged by a coterie of civilians who fantasized themselves as noble rangers on white horses, riding to the recuse of humanity in Arabia. How wrong they were.

True it is that Iraqis may benefit over time. But in the meantime America has assumed a colossal colonial responsibility and obligation, and is fighting a virtually endless war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Oh, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Remember them?

The Taliban are with us again though, in truth, they never left. They merely slipped over the border into Pakistan and they range freely through southeastern Afghanistan. The military forces deployed there were sufficient to win the first phase of the war, but then we lost interest and phases two and onwards have been ignored and neglected. Al Qaeda is always scheming, and we must scheme back to protect ourselves, our friends and out not-so-friendlies alike.

In Iraq, it is impossible to see what planning was done before March. Like a Dilbertian bureaucracy, it appears the civilian leadership in the Department of Defense ordered that no planing take place, to avoid the inevitable reality that things would look bad. The Israeli Mossad came to Washington and warned against a lack of planning for the postwar period in Iraq. Israelis were ignored (contrary to the popular mythology).

Our own State Department was pushed aside.

In Palestine, the United States forfeited opportunity after opportunity to fashion a fair settlement. The one thing that would help us, and give Bush some campaign juice–forcing a settlement on fair terms–we refuse to do. President Bush has legitimized the abuses of Ariel Sharon, labeled "self-defense" by his supporters and condemned by the Israeli intelligence community, so the crisis festers on. We have obtained no benefit in Palestine from the war in Iraq. Nor will we ever. The belief that we would do so was a hallucination.

Yesterday Paul Bremer, the subject of Tuesday’s column, was at it again, bragging about victories and predicting a land of milk and honey (but not hanging gardens in Babylon).

During the 2000 campaign, Bush advisers promised an era of "adult supervision of foreign policy." But in a cruel twist of fate, the Bushies were not adults, but merely sultry children dressing up and playing as adults.

President Bush does need some adult supervision in his foreign policy, which is why I am running for the U.S. Senate to help. He needs advice from people who know the Middle East, yes both Israelis and Palestinians, from Arabs who are friends, and also from some who are not so friendly. We need to stop fooling ourselves.

I am running as George Bush’s "best friend and biggest critic." I see no inconsistency in supporting the president as a person and being withering on the choices he has made, and the consequences he must face. I like President Bush personally; I think he is a nice guys. But I think his policies are endangering America. It is not that I love Bush less, but that I love America more, that prompts me to enter the arena once again.

Or else, people will soon be asking "Who lost Iraq?" For real.