So much wonderful critique of the Bushites, the foolish war, the botched occupation and the torture scandal has come forth recently (especially the articles by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, the daily news coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the extraordinary book of James Mann on Bush’s Vulcans) that there is no need to add comment. But I would like to summarize a little:
1. We all knew the cliché that war has unforeseen consequences. But I do not believe those of us opposed ever expected that things would go as badly as they have. More than 800 dead. More than 4,000 wounded. Torturers posing over wog victims. Conquerors riven with colonial arrogance. Democracy a fool’s goal. The country slithering toward theocratic rule or a breakup. It’s hard not to gloat if you opposed the war. But gloating gets us nowhere.
2. The abuse of Iraqi prisoners and civilians is a shame we cannot shake off. The few bad apples excuse is ludicrous. The argument that Saddam was a crueler torturer than us is lame. Let’s face the obvious: The whole barrel is rotten. The Bush crowd sanctioned torture but hid it with euphemism. They created an atmosphere that mocked Geneva conventions and scorned detainees as terrorists. The affair reeks with racism. In the minds of our soldiers, Iraqi detainees were Hajis, not people. The blot is so great that it overwhelms the few excuses for war that Bush still trumpets.
3. What to do? It is so much easier to make decisions, no matter how foolhardy, when you think — as the Bush people did — that you have a grand plan. Now we have a salvage operation, not a grand plan. Wise people will have to make wise decisions to deal with crises as they arise. I think the salvage should be guided by a handful of principles: The Iraqi invasion was a dumb adventure that failed. In view of that and the Abu Ghraib shame, it is pointless to try save American honor. The sooner we get out the better. Everything must be done to end the American bloodletting. Yet we must give the Iraqis whatever reasonable help they ask for. The mess, after all, is not of their doing. Balancing these principles will not be easy.
4. On paper, John Kerry’s plan for Iraq does not sound much different from Bush’s. I wish Kerry was more concerned with getting out than imposing security. But that does not really bother me. A president will have to make a host of decisions before we get out of Iraq, many unforeseen. I would rather have these decisions powered by good sense and logic than God and Cheney.
5. Lakhdar Brahimi did not put together the technocrat interim government that he wanted. The bullying by Paul Bremer and the resistance of the Iraqi Governing Council proved too powerful. That does not mean the Brahimi mission was a total failure. But it does mean that the UN, which must take on more responsibility in Iraq, has no panaceas. There was another troubling note in the mission. At times, the US seemed to be using the UN more as a cover than a partner. That is dangerous for the UN.
6. Prospects do not seem to auger well for the new interim government in Iraq. The Prime Minister has enough CIA entanglements to make Iraqis wary. It is not clear whether he can really tell the American generals where to go and what to do. But it is too soon to write him off. We simply do not know what lies ahead. Perhaps the grant of near sovereignty will calm Iraqis, at least for a while.