Since almost no one is coming to the defense of U.S. President Barack Obama, whose opinion poll numbers continue to slide, why don’t I give it my best effort? After all, back in 2002, before the actual invasion of Iraq, the then-senator from Illinois and this American journalist were among the relatively few lonely Americans to oppose it. Now it looks as if the president’s dim view of this unnecessary war hasn’t changed, and neither has mine. In fact, the president’s consistency of vision and decision-making integrity should be applauded.
Obama didn’t get America into this mess, and it is he who courageously proposed to get us out of it. People who say this president has no vision or consistency or is decision-adverse are almost psychotically counterfactual. The pressure on him now is to re-enter Iraq with U.S. forces that are all but pulled out. It will be impossible for Obama to resist completely. But his instinct is to rebid with a minimum and re-exit that force as soon as feasible. The instinct is based on solid reason.
The war was a mistake from the start and committing new mistakes will not right the wrong.
The bullheaded Bush administration concocted this Mesopotamia mayhem against the advice of some of its smartest allies, including the Germans and French — not to mention the sincere but quiet reservations of China — and persisted with its folly in full glare of the embarrassing absence of the United Nations Security Council approval that it had desperately sought.
In September 2002, roughly six months before the U.S.-led and dominated invasion of Iraq, my column, appearing in the United States and Asia, argued that the Bush administration’s reasoning to go to war failed to include a clear focus on the Islamic world and its reaction. I deeply apologize for quoting myself, but here I go anyway:
“It [a U.S. invasion] would be a cure far worse than the disease of Saddam if the result were a renewed and seemingly permanent geopolitical plague of terrorism. … The Muslim world is already angry enough to produce terrorists who carry out suicide attacks. If the attack on Saddam is mounted, there will be more willing recruits in the terrorist ranks.”
That proved precisely the case, of course. The destructive clash of Sunni and Shiite civilizations was not tamed by the decade-long American occupation but instead inadvertently nurtured.
America entered Iraq allegedly to blunt Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which, as it turned out, did not exist. But what did exist back then was the Iraqi state. Now even that is in danger of disappearing.
Continuing in 2002: “So here’s the paradox: The Bush administration may sincerely believe its topple-Saddam policy is in the world’s interest. … But the widespread perception in Asia and elsewhere is that what drives U.S. policy is not a broad global perspective but America’s narrow national interests (and perhaps the president’s secret wish to settle an old score for his father), and this administration’s exceptionally close relationship with Israel.”
Without the international law benefit of Security Council sanction, the world-order argument was plainly shallow. The intervention looked, at best, like the U.S. acting presumptuously as the world’s policeman. Most of the rest of the world had a different perspective. People weren’t buying it.
As we wrote in 2002: “Because the U.S effort to imbue the anti-Saddam offensive with a paternal multinational patina seems insincere, the core policy seems inherently unilateral and self-centered.”
Then, as sad fate would have it, even as early as August 2005 it was plausible to argue that Iraq was essentially lost and to write that: “The U.S. military is enmeshed in a vicious insurgency and there may be no way out — except, in fact, to get out, outright. What’s more, the American public increasingly appears to agree.
“A consensus is developing that things have gone sour since the stunning U.S. blitzkrieg of March 2003. In fact, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 54 percent do not think it was even worth going into Iraq; a separate Newsweek poll found 61 percent disapproving of President Bush’s handling of Iraq. All the current opinion indicators are anything but gung-ho for continuing indefinitely.” This is 2005, remember.
So, in 2008 Obama campaigned against the unpopular war not only because it was unpopular but also because it had been misconceived from the 2003 start. Neither weapons of mass destruction nor a shared passion for democratic process and conflict resolution among Shiite and Sunni were ever to be found.
Whether we “stayed the course” or not, many people would die. The only question was, if we stayed, how many more Iraqis would die and of course how many more Americans.
Obama, from the beginning and throughout, saw through the fog of this war to seek moral clarity and American relief in withdrawal. Nothing can be done now to prove his original judgment mistaken. No re-entry of American force, beyond a token measure designed to protect our embassy personnel, will do anything but deepen the tragedy.
But for Obama to stay true to his vision, judgment and instinct, he must ride out the extremely uncomfortable unpopularity of openly conceding that the war of which he is now the prime custodian never made sense.
This is the reality. Almost 5,000 American soldiers have given their lives in the occupation and at least 30,000 have retuned home with serious injuries.
Another different and (I would argue) better reality is that, thanks to Obama, in the recent month of March (for example), there were no American troop casualties in Iraq, for the first time since February 2003.
Even so, increasingly it looks like before too long Obama will become a political casualty of the war he did not start or ever believe in. Such is history’s ability to churn out paradox.
Columnist Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies. In August, Marshall Cavendish will publish his latest book, In the Middle of China’s Future.