For Bush, incorrect assumptions and rising costs in Iraq

U.S. casualties climb, reconstruction falters and democracy stumbles

September 08, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With the U.S. military death toll passing 1,000, one of the Bush administration's central assumptions about the invasion of Iraq now seems more obviously flawed than before. This was the expectation that a U.S. victory would be relatively swift and certain, without many casualties.

Less than a week before the invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked whether the American people were prepared for a war that might be long and costly, with significant U.S. casualties.

"Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way," the vice president said on Meet the Press, "because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators."

"I don't want to convey to the American people the idea that this is a cost-free operation," said Cheney. "Nobody can say that. I do think there's no doubt about the outcome. There's no question about who is going to prevail if there is military action."

Sixteen months after President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq, with Saddam Hussein behind bars and many of his senior aides killed, a decisive U.S. victory remains elusive. American forces confront a diverse and determined insurgency made up of Sunni and Shiite militants, Islamic extremists from Iraq and elsewhere, and criminal gangs.

Though U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces are now absorbing the bulk of military casualties, the number of American dead and wounded continues to climb. Bush and other top officials recently acknowledged that they underestimated the level of Iraqi resistance they would encounter after the regime fell.

Other assumptions about Iraq were equally mistaken. Hussein turned out not to have the stockpile of chemical and biological weapons that U.S. officials said they were sure he possessed, nor the capability to develop a nuclear arsenal, as Cheney put it, "fairly soon." The assertion that Iraq had such weapons was Bush's principal justification for an invasion.

Many Iraqis, while relieved to be free of Hussein's brutal rule, did not view American forces as "liberators" but instead came to resent the U.S.-led occupation to an extent that prompted the Bush administration to hasten a transfer to Iraqi rule. Despite assertions by some administration officials of links between Iraq and al-Qaida, several investigations have found no links of any significance.

The reconstruction of Iraq has proved to be costlier in U.S. tax dollars and prone to setbacks than officials predicted. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said before the war that Iraq, with its vast oil reserves, could finance its own reconstruction "relatively soon." Iraqi oil revenues have indeed been tapped to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. But reconstruction remains at an early stage, and the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars with no end in sight.

Neither has the ouster of Hussein spurred a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite Bush's prediction that the Iraqi leader's removal would set "a new stage for Middle Eastern peace."

A final assumption is still more a hope than a fact: that Iraq will become a democracy and serve as the foundation for sweeping reforms throughout the Arab and Muslim world toward freedom and tolerance. Iraq has tentatively scheduled national elections for January, but the continued violence has hampered efforts to develop the institutions that support a durable democracy.

Though voices of reform are heard in much of the region, none of Hussein's fellow autocrats has significantly opened up his political system since the war. Two of them, though - Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and Libya's Muammar el Kadafi - have gained a reprieve from U.S. criticism, Musharraf though his cooperation in fighting Islamic militants, Kadafi by agreeing to abandon weapons of mass destruction.

The failure of the Bush administration's expectations has led the president and other officials to highlight other rationales for the war. Rather than claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, they now stress that he had used chemical weapons in the past and had the intent to re-create his arsenal if given the chance.

Despite no evidence of a link between Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush and Cheney have sought to link the threat from Hussein's regime so closely to the war on terrorism that many Americans believe Iraq was somehow connected to Sept. 11.

At the Republican convention and since, Bush has said, referring to his decision to invade Iraq: "I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office. ... Do I forget the lessons of Sept. 11 and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country?"

Officials and Bush supporters say that the Iraq war means that terrorists are less likely to strike in the United States. But they have yet to provide compelling evidence of any connection.

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