Any time that the president orders U.S. troops into harm's way, it's an important moment for America. And it's always a fact of life that no one can know how a battle, or a war, will turn out until the fighting actually begins.
But the start of the Iraq war 10 years ago was different. President George W. Bush and his spokesmen predicted with unusual aggressiveness that America would prevail relatively easily, and Bush strategists forecast that the Iraqis would welcome their liberators with open arms as they headed to a bright future.
It didn't turn out quite that way. The U.S. "shock and awe" campaign, which included massive bombardment and an invasion by America's brilliant military, went well at first. And many Iraqis did welcome the Americans initially, expressing jubilation at the overthrow of brutal dictator Saddam Hussein.
But over time, the age-old divisions in Iraqi society resurface and it became clear that the Bush administration had badly under-estimated what it would take to complete the invasion successfully and establish a stable, prosperous and democratic society. Even today, 10 years later, after the loss of 4,488 American lives and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives (some estimates are far higher), with more than 32,000 Americans wounded, and $2 trillion in financial costs to the United States, the fate of Iraq is not clear. And 58 per cent of Americans say the war was not worth fighting, according to the latest ABC News poll.
A decade ago, I wrote extensively for U.S. News about the runup to the war. In the article that follows, I and my colleagues did not know or predict that a fundamental argument by President Bush to justify the war—the claim that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction—would turn out to be false. But we did express appropriate skepticism about the gathering conflict. "No matter how well Bush argues his case against Saddam Hussein," the article concluded, "or how effectively American troops perform in the fight that seems all but inevitable, winning people's hearts and minds may be the hardest battle of all."
Making the Case
By Kenneth T. Walsh; Kevin Whitelaw; Mark Mazzetti; David S. Powell; William Boston
At 7 a.m. nearly every day, President Bush arrives in the Oval Office, sits behind his big mahogany desk, and begins another round of direct-dial diplomacy. Last week, he chatted up the leaders of Portugal, Israel, Sweden, Afghanistan, Mauritius, the Netherlands, and Spain. Then, at the weekend, he hosted British Prime Minister
Tony Blair, one of his favorite phone pals, at Camp David. The goal, U.S. officials say, was to build a united front and increase the pressure on Saddam Hussein to disarm or go into exile—or to encourage a coup in Baghdad. The personal diplomacy is paying off. The leaders of eight European countries, including Britain, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic, signed a public letter last week backing Bush's hard line (even while France, Germany, and much of the Arab world remained opposed).
Regardless of how different allies come down on the Iraq issue, every sign now suggests that Bush's diplomatic offensive won't last much longer. At an Oval Office meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the president leaned forward, raised his voice, and surprised his dapper guest with a declaration. "We have not made up our mind on military action," he said. "I have made up my mind that one way or another Saddam Hussein will be disarmed." This warning—which was a central theme in last week's State of the Union address—will be repeated this week when the (newly hawkish) Secretary of State Colin Powell provides the United Nations Security Council with more information about Iraq's weapons programs.
The next benchmark will be the report of U.N. weapons inspectors due on February 14. If Hussein has not shown Bush clear movement toward disarmament by then, the president is likely to move quickly toward war, his advisers say.
Moonless nights. At that point, the U.S. military buildup in the Mideast probably will have reached critical mass. The United States has more than tripled the number of troops surrounding Iraq in recent weeks, with 55,000 soldiers and marines now on the ground in Kuwait alone. Countries in the region, including Turkey, are quietly lining up to permit U.S. forces to use their territory for bases and overflights, which would allow the Navy to conduct airstrikes off carriers in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The Air Force has also recently built several "climate controlled" hangars on the island base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to house the B-2 Stealth bombers that would see the first action in the skies above Baghdad once the commander in chief gives the OK.
To that end, the ongoing diplomatic campaign will give the Pentagon time to complete a buildup that could reach 200,000 troops by late February or early March. That, it appears, would be the most likely time for war to begin—a window of opportunity when moonless nights would give added cover to aircraft and ground troops.
The administration's case is simple: Saddam Hussein is hiding dangerous weapons and is defying the United Nations; Iraq is connected to terrorism; Saddam Hussein's human-rights record is atrocious, and finally, America is exploring every avenue to avoid war.
But without clearer evidence, many Americans are jittery. "People are looking for, No. 1, justification," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff to Ronald Reagan. "No. 2, a game plan. No. 3, an explanation of why we have to do this now. And No. 4, reassurance that we are not going it alone." Duberstein says Bush effectively dealt with most of these issues in his State of the Union speech but adds, "Now he needs to demonstrate what's the endgame, what happens next."
The speech gave Bush at least a temporary boost. Sixty-seven percent of Americans who watched the address said he made a convincing case for military action to disarm Hussein, up from 47 percent prior to the speech, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll. But even White House officials were skeptical that those perceptions will last very long.
With good reason. Americans seem inclined to give their commander in chief the benefit of the doubt, but the doubt is real. "What right does the United States have to impose its will on the world?" asked James Meltzer, 31, as he tended bar at Chili's in Carmel, Ind. "Maybe I'm too much of a pacifist, but I'd like to think there are other options before going to war." Commented Kadeana Bradley, 28, a paralegal, as she waited for her lunch in the Roly Poly sandwich shop in Indianapolis: "They keep talking about weapons of mass destruction, but they're not showing us anything. . . . Frankly, I think it's all about oil."
Aware of the public mood, Democrats are escalating their opposition. Sens. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Byrd of West Virginia plan to introduce a resolution calling for another Senate vote on whether to go to war. And while such a measure apparently has little chance of passage, the debate, stoked by a growing number of Democratic presidential hopefuls, will surely provoke more soul-searching on Capitol Hill and around the country.
Even some advisers to former President George H. W. Bush, the current commander in chief's father, now have their doubts. Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, expresses concern that the administration may be rushing to battle.
At the heart of administration policy is Bush's Manichaean philosophy. Those who know him say he doesn't care very much about domestic polls, congressional qualms, or the opinion of those abroad. "It's become a moral crusade for President Bush," says a senior official in a previous Republican administration. "Saddam Hussein is the epitome of evil for him." Family friends agree privately that the president is eager to finish the job his father started, by getting rid of the Iraqi dictator.
Hearts and minds. Adds a former adviser to the elder Bush: "The assumption in the administration is that once the president announces that we are at war, everyone will fall into place. But it's more dicey and trickier than that. He's cried wolf so often that he's lost the emotional support of the American public. We've been on the verge of going to war for a year now, and nothing has happened."
What worries military planners and some former policymakers is that, beyond the war itself, a U.S. occupation would cost many billions of dollars, further damaging a weak economy, and provoke a series of perilous complications, including anti-American guerrilla operations and sabotage.
The drumbeat against Iraq, meanwhile, increases. "We want to carry out bold strokes," with a special emphasis on making the case against Iraq and combating anti-Americanism, says Tucker Eskew, director of the new 12-member White House Office of Global Communications. Last week, the office distributed translations of the State of the Union text in 20 languages, including French, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and Spanish. The office also hosted a small group of international journalists who met with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on the night of the address. The journalists included representatives of the al Jazeera television network, the BBC, and Australian broadcasting.
Senior U.S. officials, members of Congress, and U.S. ambassadors were sent talking points about the speech—via a daily E-mail that Eskew calls the "global messenger." And a small army of spokespersons, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, launched a round of interviews and speeches promoting the president's views about the threat from Saddam Hussein.
The effort has a long way to go. "There has been no sales pitch to the world," says a European diplomat. "It's always to America." And the campaign appears piecemeal and badly targeted, at least to many Europeans. At the Gaststatte Hirten pub in the German hamlet of Bad Godesberg, five beer-drinking patrons had little good to say about Bush's policy. "He's already made up his mind to go to war," said Klaus Gottschling, a 47-year-old business consultant. "This Texas cowboy is just going to do whatever he wants to do anyway." Detlev Heidbreder, a 49-year-old lawyer, took a swig of beer and announced that Bush's State of the Union speech was really a declaration of war. Polls show that nearly 80 percent of Germans oppose any conflict in Iraq.
These are daunting numbers. And they make a larger point: No matter how well Bush argues his case against Saddam Hussein or how effectively American troops perform in the fight that seems all but inevitable, winning people's hearts and minds may be the hardest battle of all.