The War in Iraq
The debate about the most recent Gulf war has been confused because people are conflating 4 different issues.
1. Was the decision to go to war justified? On this point I agree with Bill Maher that it was 60 - 40 decision.
The main argument against the war in Iraq was that the threat from Iraq was neither direct nor immediate. Saddam Hussein was only a threat to his neighbors and that threat was years away. Lesser arguments were that a war would antagonize the Muslim world, that things would go wrong, resulting in catastrophic losses, and that it would destroy our relationships with our allies.
The main argument for the war was that Saddam Hussein was both very anti-American and very reckless. He believed he could win any war. He had plenty of self-esteem. He would have made a good student in an American school: "Now Saddam, when you grow up, you can be ANYTHING you want to be!" Lesser arguments were that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that war was inevitable, that victory in Iraq would promote democracy throughout the Arab world, and Saddam Hussein's atrocities.
The rebuttal to the argument that war was inevitable was that when it is possible to postpone a war it is usually a good idea to do so. There is a story that a man was sentenced to death by a king. He got his execution postponed when he convinced the king that he could teach a horse to talk in a year. Later, someone asked what he would do when the year was up. He replied: "The king could die, I could die, the horse could die." Saddam Hussein was going to die sooner or later. It might have been before war became inevitable. Even if war couldn't have been avoided in the long run, postponing it for a few years would have allowed us to fight it with better weapons. Saddam Hussein's army wasn't getting stronger or better equipped. Ours was.
I think the antiwar arguments were stronger than the pro-war ones, but I agree that it was a close call. So I think the President should be given the benefit of the doubt.
2. The attack on Iraq had a clear objective: remove Saddam Hussein from power (i.e. "regime change"). That was accomplished. So why are the troops still there? The answer in two words is: mission creep. The army was sent in to remove Saddam Hussein, then, once they did that, their mission became building a new government. This raises the question of what is a reasonable objective for a war. Federal Express used to have a slogan: "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." Several years ago I saw someone with a Tee-shirt with the message: "U.S. Marines: when it absolutely, positively has to be destroyed overnight." That sums up what a war can accomplish: destroy something. What should be destroyed? The answer is: a government. If we look at the successful invasions in the past several years (Panama, Haiti under Clinton), the object was to destroy a government. If we look at the unsuccessful ones (Somalia, Sudan, in my opinion Kosovo), the objective was something else.
If the objective had only been regime change, then our troops could have just taken Baghdad, then turned around and come home. If they were concerned that Saddam Hussein might return to power, they could have emptied the jails, identified political prisoners, given them guns, given their friends guns, identified potential rivals to Hussein, given them guns, given their friends guns, then left. The process would have taken a week or two. Instead, we have an occupation that has lasted a year and a half with no end in sight.
Another point is the effect of the occupation on the reserves and national guard. The reserves are supposed to be used short term. Mobilizing the reserves would be appropriate for threatening to invade. In the Iraq war, they could have been used for the attack on Baghdad. Using them for an occupation is a misuse of the reserves. The situation with the National Guard is worse. The National Guard is supposed to be used to deal with emergencies in the United States. Using them for a long term occupation is an abuse of the National Guard. There have been reports that morale in the Reserves and National Guard is at an all time low.
On this issue, the President shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt. This was a major blunder.
3. While President Bush was making the case for war with Iraq, the situation changed in North Korea. Fred Kaplan wrote in his article "Rolling Blunder" (Washington Monthly May 2004), that through 2002, the North Korean government had been making complaints and threats which Bush ignored. Then on October 4, 2002, the North Koreans told American negotiators that they were reprocessing plutonium to make nuclear bombs. In December they expelled the nonproliferation inspectors that had been guarding the nuclear fuel rods. This enabled them to move those rods to reprocessing plants.
When they threatened to do this during the Clinton administration, Clinton made plans for war with North Korea and moved 250 soldiers into the area, an obvious threat. He also agreed to make several concessions on oil and nuclear power in exchange for putting the rods under guard. But in October 2002, Bush was distracted by the Congressional campaign and by making the case for the Iraq war. He also had his forces committed to Iraq and Afghanistan, so he couldn't threaten military action. Also, threatening to invade North Korea would have undermined the case for war with Iraq, because it would mean that North Korea was a bigger threat than Iraq. So, Bush did nothing. As a result, on Bush's watch, the number of nuclear powers increased from eight (U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan) to nine. This permanently weakened America's strategic position. Ironically, one of the reasons given for the Iraq war was to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This goes beyond a blunder. This is gross incompetence.
4. One of the problems at the Abu Ghraib prison is that the guards had never been trained for their jobs. This is part of a bigger problem: the troops hadn't been trained for an occupation. Another problem is that the soldiers weren't issued body armor. Still another problem is that after their capture of Baghdad, the troops didn't know which locations they were supposed to protect: museums, power plants, oil wells, or the water system? American forces weren't given the training, equipment, or even the orders needed for an occupation. This goes beyond incompetence. It was a dereliction of duty on the part of the Commander in Chief.