Five years of war: Bitter balance, yet persistent optimism

March 20th, 2008 - 9:12 am ICT by admin  

By Laszlo Trankovits
Washington, March 20 (DPA) The mood in the White House is not good. Many of US President George W. Bush’s confidantes have left and he looks aged in his final year in office. He does curious things: Tap dancing while he waits for a visitor on the steps of the White House, for example. Or singing a wistful parody of the sentimental Green, Green Grass of Home, with a Texas twist, at his last appearance at the comedy show at the traditional Gridiron dinner with journalists.

At a press conference, Bush was surprised by a reporter’s comment that petrol was reaching the unheard of price of $4 a gallon (four litres). In fact, Bush appears to have already checked out 10 months before his departure from office - his historical legacy already dubbed, a “failed presidency,” according to the neo-conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

At the centre of the ‘failure’ is five years of war in Iraq, despite US Vice President Dick Cheney’s declarations in Iraq this week of “phenomenal” improvements and a “successful endeavour.”

Even after Bush leaves office, the end of this bloody conflict is not in sight, despite promises on the campaign trail by Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Bush’s legacy threatens to remain a major factor in America’s future. Despite widespread public belief that the war was a mistake, fewer than 20 percent believe the US should immediately withdraw and 65 percent believe the US is obligated to establish a reasonable level of stability and security before withdrawing, a recent Gallup poll showed.

Bush believes Iraq is on the way to democracy and stability, and has said he hopes history will justify that legacy. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger agrees, saying that Bush made an accurate assessment of the challenges of radical Islam.

But even one-time Iraq war advocates like Kissinger refrain from calling the war a success. The balance is too bitter after the second-longest foreign conflict in US history. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright has called the situation in Iraq “worse than Vietnam at the time”.

The Bush administration’s main justifications for the war in Iraq - that it had weapons of mass destruction and was connected to Al Qaeda and thus the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - have turned out to be untrue. Bush’s vision of democracy and stability blooming in the Islamic world has faded.

The war has exposed “the limits on our power” and produced one winner, Iran, as it gains regional authority in the power vacuum, an analyst at the Washington-based Cato think tank wrote.

Washington’s mistakes were legion. The “coalition of the willing” was hardly received by happy Iraqis with flowers in their arms, as Cheney had imagined. The number of invasion troops, 130,000, was too small to provide security after the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government.

Although US planning called for the Iraqi army to be put to work reconstructing the country’s long-ignored infrastructure, coalition director Paul Bremer surprised most of Bush’s advisors by firing the Baath army and civil service, putting hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of work, creating a dangerous power vacuum and sending many into the arms of the insurgency.

On top of all that, evidence of human rights violations at Abu Ghraib prison eroded the reputation of the US military.

Iraq and the US have paid an enormous price. Death tolls have reached an estimated 60,000 civilians and nearly 4,000 US troops.

Finally, the Iraq war is burning money fast. Forget Bush’s estimate of $500 million by 2008, writes Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz. He estimates the total so far at $3 billion, and growing at $12 billion a month, taking into account the extended recovery from serious injuries survived by many soldiers thanks to advances in medical science and lost work hours.

The effects on the world economy are enormous, Stiglitz warns, citing the soaring cost of oil alone - from $25 a barrel to more than $100 since 2003.

Not even the recent evidence of dropping insurgent violence after an additional 30,000 troops over past months has changed the opinion of Americans. Sixty percent still believe the war was a mistake, the Gallup poll showed.

In the US presidential campaign, the war has taken a back seat to the economy, with less news of Iraqi violence and more news of growing US economic ills.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration broadcasts a sense of optimism that the US can avoid Iraq’s becoming a second Vietnam. Bush is backed by people like neo-conservative Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, who wrote “victory in Iraq is within reach”.

But even among conservatives, only a few believe that Iraq - with its traumatized, anciently divided population - will ever become a shining light of democracy in the Middle East of Bush’s vision.

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