Editorial Column: Bush Fans Can’t ‘Pre-Write’ History

Chicago Tribune

September 21, 2008 -Some people want to rewrite history even before it happens. Just look at the growing gaggle of pundits asserting that President George W. Bush’s foreign policy will ultimately be judged a success. Far more likely is that Bush’s standing with regard to international issues will only diminish over time.

Those attempting to strike pre-emptively in defense of the president’s legacy stake their claim on the idea that victory in Iraq is in sight. They point to Bob Woodward’s latest book, “The War Within,” which describes how Bush ignored his advisers and decided to press ahead with the surge. They see that decision as an act of remarkable courage, praising him for his “fortitude to insist on winning.”

Put aside for the moment that this is the same president who always said he listens to the commanders on the ground. Apparently, he listens to them only when they tell him what he wants to hear and replaces them with four-star yes men if they don’t.

The larger issue is the question of success in Iraq.

Reasons for stability: Despite “the surge is working” mantra, the increase of American troops in Iraq was one of the least important factors in the decrease of violence.

More critical to the fostering of stability was the placing of more than 100,000 former insurgents on the American payroll; the alienation Iraqis came to feel toward Al Qaeda; the tactical retreat by Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr; the segregation—often forced and violent—of various ethnic and religious groups in Baghdad; and the more effective special operations by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Whether this newfound stability, regardless of its origins, will lead to sustainable success is doubtful.

The first test will be whether Iraq’s Shiite-dominated leadership keeps the former insurgents on the government payroll when that responsibility falls to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Oct. 1.

If Maliki fires or arrests those fighters, the vast majority of them Sunnis, he will show that he is as clueless about what is required in a post-conflict situation as was Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority who fueled the insurgency by disbanding the army.

Whether even U.S. officials trust Maliki to make the right call is unclear. As Woodward revealed in his book, American intelligence has tried to listen in on every word he utters.

The bar for success and victory in Iraq has been lowered considerably since Bush spoke of Iraq showing “the power of freedom to transform that vital region.”

The country has become a Shiite-dominated, Iranian-influenced theocracy. That will not change. The corrupting influence of oil, which generates 90 percent of the government’s revenue and its growing budget surplus, will ensure that any semblance of real democracy is not going to happen soon.

At what cost?  Those desperate to make Iraq the signature success of Bush foreign policy will ignore all that and ignore an invasion cost that could exceed $3 trillion. At that price, no more “victories” can be afforded.

They will also ignore the likelihood that George Bush’s orders have killed more innocent Iraqi civilians by accident than Saddam Hussein’s orders did by design.

Some Bush supporters firmly believe the cost of Iraq is worth prevailing on the central front in the war on terror. But there is no central front or final victory in a war on a tactic, as the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan demonstrates.

Iraq will be represented as a glorious triumph. For without it, Bush’s steadfastness will be seen as obstinacy and his courage as callousness. And his defenders would have to defend their own role and advice in the Iraqi debacle.

They instead prefer to talk about how the realism of the president’s first term became the idealism of the second. They argue that his democracy agenda is a permanent change and that his successor will have to adopt it and the other main themes of this foreign policy.

Only change: Rhetoric – The only thing that changed from the first term to the second was the rhetoric. Realists don’t become idealists overnight. But politicians do disguise an abrupt change in tactics as motivated only by the noblest intentions.

When it was shown that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the Sept. 11 attacks, a new rationale was needed. So democracy became the favorite sound bite of the second Bush term, just as pre-emptive action was in the first.

Now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks up democracy with conviction, but with nothing to show for it. The reality is that the current administration, and future ones, will always speak about supporting democracy but very rarely do anything about it because other interests are in play.

Bush’s premature hagiographers compare him to President Harry Truman. Truman was an unpopular president who is now seen as a success because the wisdom of his policies eventually became clear.

But as more becomes known about the decision-making of the current administration, Bush’s reputation will only diminish further.

Dennis Jett, a former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University. He is the author of “Why American Foreign Policy Fails.”


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