What I learned in 2003

It is with great humility that I inform you this past year has been an education for me. Those of you who have been regular readers of this column for these many years will be surprised that I admit to being able to learn anything at this late date in my life. You might have assumed from the smugness usually exhibited here that I know everything, or at least believe as much. Well, along came 2003 and I am sadder, but wiser.

I entered the year as a fervent supporter of the Bush plan to invade Iraq. My rationale was simply stated — Iraq under Saddam Hussein had become a very dangerous place. All indications were, I believed, that Saddam had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and was reasonably close to posing a nuclear threat that threatened Israel and the destabilization of the Middle East. In the process of getting rid of Saddam, we would liberate the Iraqi people and hopefully help them to form a democracy.

The latter was decidedly a happy sidelight, not a primary reason since America has no right to invade a country unless its own existence is threatened. I was not naive. I knew the chances of democracy taking hold in Iraq were a long shot, but in the face of the threat to our security, I believed that the President had no other choice. I also felt the Democrats, for the most part, had become irrelevant on the Iraq issue. Their calls for putting the decision into the hands of the United Nations, it seemed to me, were an excuse for inaction. I believed that UN inspections were only giving Saddam time to build a bomb and stockpile WMD.

As you know, we invaded Iraq and the formal part of military operations were especially successful in limiting the loss of life, both American and Iraqi.

And even though Saddam himself had not been captured, it seemed only a matter of time. When the WMD were not immediately found, I agreed with the Bush administration’s call for patience. Education dawns slowly. It took months of searching and billions of dollars to realize that I and many of you had been had. Saddam was not close to becoming a nuclear threat, although his intentions were bad. Apparently the sanctions and inspections had actually worked. We couldn’t find the stockpile of WMD, the protestations of the President and his people to the contrary. The Bush rationale for a preemptive strike had disappeared.

As the days and weeks dragged on, it also became apparent that we had not done a very good job of planning for postwar Iraq. Life in the Sunni Triangle around Baghdad had become incredibly dangerous for both Iraqi citizens and our own soldiers. American casualties now occur with numbing regularity. The violence is spreading to other areas of the countryside. When one of our top generals called for more troops, the Bush team reacted with a dismissive sneer and fired him. Now the President tells us with a straight face that his commanders in the field all tell him that we don’t need more forces in Iraq.

The miserable repressive life that Iraqis led under Saddam has turned into not so much freedom as anarchy, a life punctuated by suicide bombs that kill shoppers and schoolchildren. Meanwhile, administration officials complain that the media is not telling the real story of schools being opened and the building bricks of democracy being put into place. But democracy cannot take root in a terrorists’ playground any more than you can plant seedlings without first providing fertile soil. In the meantime, the President, who has studiously avoided attending the funeral services for the returning dead, flies into Baghdad for two hours and that is the story that dominates the news. The Pentagon continues to bar the media from training its TV cameras on the body bags returning from Iraq.

Saddam is captured amid much fanfare. We pat ourselves on the back for doing something we originally assumed would occur within the first weeks of the war. The media rushes to the Democratic candidates with the bewildering question of well, doesn’t this justify Bush’s war policies? The President holds a rare news conference to not only celebrate the event but change the rationale for the war.

Saddam was a nasty dictator and killed many of his own people and yes, he should stand trial for his crimes, but where are the WMD? How does capturing Saddam justify invading another country without the WMD? But wait, the percentage of Americans out there that mistakenly believe that Saddam was part of the 9-11 plot has actually increased!

Where is the media to repeatedly ask the President whether his doctrine is now justified? If we can invade because a dictator treats his people badly, then why is it that just prior to Saddam seizing Kuwait, it was OK for the elder President Bush to deal with this same dictator? Surely he was killing and torturing his own people even then.

Now Libya has announced that it will get rid of its WMD and the President rejoices that Muammar Kaddafi has seen the light. Kaddafi has seen what happened to Saddam. He knows that George W. Bush has not turned into Woodrow Wilson. He is not intent on making the world safe for democracy and thankfully, he will not invade other nations on that dubious pretext. Kaddafi knows that he will not have to free his political prisoners to remain in power. He, too, received an education in 2003.