Shadowland: When Victory Was Ours

The disaster in Iraq, it would seem, is the fault of the press. "YOU CREEPS HAVE BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS," reads an e-mail from a gentleman in Cincinnati, which popped up on my screen this morning as I was drinking my coffee.

It's one of hundreds in response to last week's Shadowland column where I suggested Americans were in denial about the mess in Iraq, that the French probably were right when they tried to prevent the rush to war last spring (but are insufferably smug about it now) and that there were warnings in the American press about how long and painful the military occupation would be, if only the public had listened.

That last point really ticked people off. The Cincinnati gentleman attacked the "so-called liberal media" for not being liberal enough, for cheerleading the rush to war. Others, on the right, called me a traitor for daring to criticize the Iraq adventure at all, even now. "Only a True American can disagree with our leaders but still publicly support them," a Mr. Romero wrote. "Our weak and heartless media give other countries the impression that Americans are weak ... The next time you chose[sic] to tread on the American Flag, do it from another country."

I've read all the nearly 800 e-mails. About one quarter are pure vitriol addressed, inevitably, to "people like you," but a roughly equal number contain thoughtful criticism, usually emphasizing the good that's been done for the Iraqi people by eliminating Saddam's regime. Another quarter are unabashed fan letters, thanking somebody for being "brave enough" to speak out. (Feel free to keep sending those to Shadowland@Newsweek.com.) And recently, there's been an avalanche from folks, like the man in Cincinnati, who say they always opposed the war, and blame the media for failing to do so, too.

In fact, it's not the business of "people like me" to oppose the war, or for that matter the occupation. Our business is to try to describe the situation as accurately as we can and, if possible, on the basis of past histories and present facts, to suggest what the future might hold in store. If you tell me there was a lot of bad reporting before, during and after the first phase of the war, much of it pure jingoism, you're right. But there were other voices that tried to present all sides, to ask tough questions, and, if they didn't get the ratings, it's not only because they were drowned out by the war drums, it's because the answers made almost everyone so uncomfortable.

Let's not kid ourselves about Saddam Hussein. He wanted to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He said as much on many occasions, and mounted a massive program to do just that during the 1980s. He was a horrible tyrant who slaughtered his own people. He was ferociously vengeful, could never be trusted and, what is worse, had a long record of pathological misjudgments leading to vast, bloody wars. I've been writing about his grim record since my first visit to Baghdad in 1985. I make no apologies for calling him evil. And let's take this a step further. I think it's pretty clear that if September 11 hadn't happened (quite independently of Saddam), and if President Bush had not used the anniversary to rally the United Nations and world opinion a year later, Saddam might well have found a way to start rebuilding his horrible arsenal. The intent remained.

So, hell yes, I'm glad he's out of power, and most Iraqis are, too. But it's Americans I'm worried about. Whatever the history of Saddam's crimes, the history of colonial and quasi-colonial occupations in the Middle East is very grim indeed, for the occupiers as well as the occupied. There was never any reason to think Saddam could hold off the American onslaught in open warfare. But there was every reason to expect that Iraq under U.S. and British occupation would be an expensive, demoralizing quagmire. So I reported, and so it is. The latest Gallup poll from liberated Baghdad shows the Americans and Brits are mostly eyed with "disapproval," even as they die trying to bring peace and order.

Was this a war that had to be fought to protect the people of the United States?

That's the bleakest irony in this whole affair. Precisely because President Bush was so persuasive at the U.N. a year ago, Saddam once again was isolated, scrutinized and contained by the entire world community. By January, Bush--and the United Nations--had defeated Saddam's ambitions without firing a shot (apart from occasional attacks on his air defenses).

Meanwhile, the war that Americans really needed to fight and win, the war against the specific terrorists who actually did carry out the September 11 atrocity, was going very well. Al Qaeda's haven in Afghanistan had been conquered by Washington with full support from the United Nations and NATO. Osama bin Laden might still be at large in some rocky corner of the country, the Taliban might be regrouping here and there, but the operational masterminds of the attack had been hunted down and caught, spilling the secrets of their plans, allowing the United States and its allies to stave off any new 9/11s.

At the beginning of this year, with Americans alert and engaged, isolating Iraq, vanquishing the key elements of Al Qaeda and backed by just about the entire world, the United States was safer than it had been for a long time. If President Bush had wanted to land on an aircraft carrier on some blustery January morning and declare victory, he could have, and he'd have been right. Instead, he launched his pre-emptive war in Iraq and began this thankless occupation.

Could the press have stopped him? I don't think so. This was a fight the president wanted and believed in, and he's not a man to be swayed by mere news reports. But, yes, we could have made a better showing, asked tougher questions, been more aggressive presenting what we knew to be the facts. Then, at least, the American people would have known when they'd won. Now, we're looking at war without end.

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