Jury still out on Iraq war's aftermath

April 22, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Longtime supporters of the invasion of Iraq are having a fine old time saying "I told you so" these days.

Saddam Hussein was toppled, the U.S. military won easily, Iraq is free and American soldiers have been greeted as liberators - well, some of them. So conservatives think it's time for opponents of the war, like myself, to beg forgiveness and admit that we were grossly, scandalously wrong.

Wrong? Moi? It's hard to imagine. Oh, I have erred on occasion. In 1987, I scoffed at claims that the miniskirt was coming back, though I was not entirely sorry to see proof to the contrary.

I predicted, with no particular pleasure, that Al Gore would win the 2000 election - I should have said he was going to get the most votes. But on the war in Iraq, I have looked high and low for any evidence that I was wrong.

It's not as though I or any other serious critic said the United States was going to lose. We took victory for granted ("Americans are looking forward to a brief, easy conflict that will make the world a safer place, and they may very well get it." - Steve Chapman, Nov. 17, 2002). Nor did we claim that Saddam Hussein would hang on to power, or that Iraqis would weep bitter tears at his departure.

We did point out the potential pitfalls, like a global recession caused by rising oil prices or house-to-house fighting in Baghdad. Neither of those happened, I'm glad to report. But to suggest it was silly to worry about them is like saying that if you win a game of Russian roulette, you were smart to play.

The objections were twofold: that the war wasn't necessary to protect Americans and that it would embroil us in a burdensome occupation. The president's chief rationale was that Mr. Hussein could not be allowed to build up an arsenal of unconventional weapons, since "the only possible use he could have for those weapons is to dominate, intimidate or attack."

So far, those 30,000 chemical weapons President Bush told us about have yet to be found. Most likely some will turn up, but their discovery would only deepen a mystery: why Mr. Hussein didn't use them. His failure to do so even in a defensive effort does not exactly support the belief that he had planned to use them for aggression.

The rapid disintegration of his fighting forces, likewise, doesn't confirm the case for war; it undermines it. We were told that if he acquired the Bomb, he would promptly invade nearby countries, knowing we wouldn't risk nuclear war to save Kuwait. But it should have been clear - OK, I'll admit, it was clear to some of us - that his army was too depleted to be a threat .

One fear of war opponents was that Mr. Hussein would unleash smallpox or anthrax on American soil, which apparently he didn't. Why not? I'm not sure. Maybe hawks can explain this show of restraint by a dangerous madman.

An even greater fear was that in the chaos of the war, Iraqi officers would sell their nastiest weapons to terrorists. In that, I confess, I may have been too willing to believe the administration's claims that Iraq had vast stores of chemical and biological agents. But if those weapons exist and some of them find their way into the black market, it could be a while before we find out.

What Mr. Bush's critics stressed all along was that the biggest challenge would not be winning the war but managing the aftermath. The perils of occupation have arrived ahead of schedule. So far, we've had rampant looting, fighting between rival groups in Tikrit, ethnic cleansing in the Kurdish north, and anti-American violence in Mosul.

Thousands of Muslims marched in Baghdad Friday demanding a U.S. withdrawal and an Islamic state. The most important Shiite group in Iraq boycotted the U.S.-sponsored meeting in Ur to form a new Iraqi government - which could spell trouble in a country that is mostly Shiite. The American military has found itself overwhelmed by the task of administering Iraq.

The events of the past month, though illuminating, have provided no reason to think that Mr. Hussein was a genuine danger to Americans or that the U.S. occupation of Iraq will be a rousing success. But maybe it's not fair to criticize the president for not grasping all that before. How could he have known?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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