Where Bush Went Wrong in Iraq and How He Can Correct It Now

A recent story in the New York Times documented the steady proliferation of Halal food pushcarts in Midtown Manhattan, which I can attest to in my capacity as a sidewalk gourmet. These Muslim street food vendors -- mostly Middle Eastern men who can be seen praying on mats beside their carts -- are now nearly as ubiquitous, and popular, as New York's iconic hot dog stands. They deserve their success: the food is very good and it's priced right. Still, one might wonder whether this New York Jew living in a post-9/11 world finds the Big Apple's epicurean Islamicization a worrisome trend. No, honestly, I'm not nervous about it. Here's why.

When I belly up for my chicken on pita, these men invariably greet me with cheerful deference, often referring to me as "boss." That polite gratuity is a clear sign they understand their standing the melting pot can only be maintained through good citizenship and proper behavior. To put it bluntly, their instincts tell them the Muslim community isn't on top in polyglot America.

Which brings us to the events of May 1, 2003. On that day President Bush declared,
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country."
In short, it took 300,000 coalition troops just 42 days to overwhelm Saddam's army (then the only organized armed force in Iraq), send the brutal dictator into a dirt hole and take complete control of his country. According to the Department of Defense, on that date US military fatalities numbered 138 and our wounded totaled 542. On Saturday those figures were 3,773 and 27,846, respectively.

For the sake of their sacrifices, we are obliged to recall the kind of country we inherited from Saddam Hussein on May 1, 2003. Listen to President Bush's description in a radio address five months earlier. Saddam, he said, is
"perhaps the world's most brutal dictator who has already committed genocide with chemical weapons, ordered the torture of children, and instituted the systematic rape of the wives and daughters of his political opponents. We cannot leave the future of peace and the security of America in the hands of this cruel and dangerous man."
Looked at another way, on the eve of our victory nothing moved in Saddam's Iraq and no Iraqi dared own so much as a BB gun unless Saddam said it was OK.  Thanks to Saddam's 24-year reign of terror, the country we seized was a pre-pacified nation. If its oppressed populace was not entirely happy to see us, they were physically and psychologically incapable of doing much about it. The remnants of its hostile leadership were on the run or in custody, the hated "Persians" were without any sway, "Iraqi insurgency" and "al Qaeda in Iraq" were two implausible oxymorons. An occupier's dream, putty in our hands, an Arab nation bloodied and bowed with the man in the street obliged to greet us with polite deference and ask, "hot sauce or white sauce, boss?" America was on top in Iraq -- but it would not be for long.

It was precisely at his triumphant moment when George W. Bush lost Iraq, along with America's momentum in the war on terror, control of Congress in 2006, and the political assets needed to confront a radical Islamist Iran on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power -- a threat that today makes Saddam's Iraq seem like a petulant child by comparison.

Instead of putting first things first, namely, mounting an occupation modeled on our WW II successes in Germany and Japan, then sealing Iraq's borders, declaring martial law, preparing for a long-term American regency, restricting movement within the country, and disarming the entire populace, Mr. Bush flew off-course. He parachuted in battalions of bureaucrats and constitutional lawyers, staking all on a rapid handover of power to his Iraqi designees and delivering "democracy" to an ancient people with no corresponding word in its language. In a part of the world where theology is the motive force, and the name of the only religion translates to "submit" in English, the president's jejune goodwill and misplaced egalitarianism signaled a willingness to replace a hard fist with an open hand. And that's when the bad guys in the Islamic world, conditioned by the laws of war found in their Quran, looked at each other in utter disbelief and shouted with glee, "last one to Iraq is a rotten egg!"

A well-executed allied occupation would have blunted the rise of today's lethal insurgency, kept al Qaeda, Iran and Syria on the sidelines, and cost far fewer Americans (and Iraqis) their lives. Also, ironically, it would have given Bush's political goals in Iraq a better chance to be realized than the remote possibility which exists for them now.

That's all 20-20 hindsight, sure, but it never hurts to know how we got from there to here -- especially when it exposes a dangerously naïve institutional mindset that's still in place across the entire political spectrum. One that's balefully clueless about the nature of the Islamic enemy we're still battling within a struggle that's going to take many more difficult years to win. That's why it must be noted that virtually none of the "public intellectuals" on the right have owned up to the mistakes the administration has made in Iraq, and even fewer have owned up to their own benighted prognostications and Pollyannaish advice. There are exceptions - George Will is one.

For the most part, though, the Krauthammers and the Podhoretzes of this world are content to blame the media, the frenzied Left and the Democratically-controlled Congress for the avoidable problems we are facing in Iraq. But those are the effects, not the causes, of the President's previous failures. At the outset, the media was gung-ho, begging to be "embedded" and ride shotgun with our troops, the Left is always in a frenzy, and it was his conduct of the war that cost Bush the Congress in '06.

Now for the good news. All the damaging consequences of all the blunders the President has committed to date in Iraq are reversible in 48- to 72-hours - the time it will take to destroy Iran's fragile nuclear supply chain from the air. And since the job gets done using mostly stand-off weapons and stealth bombers, not one American soldier, sailor or airman need suffer as much as a bruised foot.

Let's look downstream the day after and observe how the world has changed.

First and foremost, there's this prospective  fait accompli -- and it changes everything. The Iranians are no longer a nuclear threat, and won't be again for at least another decade,  and even that assumes the strategic and diplomatic situation reverts to the status quo ante and they'll just be able to pick up and rebuild as they would after an earthquake. Not possible.

Next, the Iranians would do nothing -- bupkes. They don't attack Israel, they don't choke off the world's oil supply, they do not send hit squads to the United States, there is no "war" in the conventional sense of attack counterattack. Iran already has its hands full without inviting more trouble. Its leaders would be reeling from the initial US attack and they would know our forces are in position to strike again if Iran provokes us or our allies. They would stand before mankind with their pants around their ankles, dazed, bleeding, crying, reduced to bloviating from mosques in Teheran and pounding their fists on desks at the UN. The lifelines they throw to the Iraqi insurgents, Hezbollah and Syria would begin to dry up, as would the lifelines the double-dealing Europeans have been throwing to Iran. Maybe the Mullahs would lose control.

Strong tremors would be felt throughout the Islamic ummah. "Just as we feared, they finally called our bluff. We pushed America to the limit and America pushed us back twice as hard. Looks who's the dhimmi now! Uh, maybe we need to rethink this 7th century Jihad crap -- as well as the Jihadist idiots around here. This is all turning out to be more trouble than it's worth."

Miracles would be seen here at home. Democratic politicians are dumbstruck, silent for a week. With one swing of his mighty bat, the President has hit a dramatic walk-off homerun. He goes from goat to national hero overnight. The elections in November are a formality. Republicans keep the White House and recapture both houses of Congress.  Hillary is elected president - of the Chappaqua PTA.

Going forward, with Iran's influence blunted and the insurgents cut off, we end the war in Iraq on our terms. In his first hundred days, the new president reads Iraq the riot act and tells its leaders if they don't pull themselves together by a date certain, America will decide they're not worth the candle and we're going to get out.

From that point on, with our arms free of the quicksand, we can fight the war on terror the way it should have been fought in the first place. Using our enormous edge in weapons, intelligence and technology, and building on it, we launch quick, lethal, ad hoc strikes wherever in the world we determine terrorists are working to harm us, shooting first and asking for permission later.

Am I dreaming? I don't think so. Being too sensible is probably more like it. In any event, I am not creating anything original here. Combine Bush's recent statements with those of the President of France and it's not hard to see where this is heading.  Mr. Bush still has time to put America back on the offensive again. But with only a little more than a year left in his term he has no time to lose. Rarely does history provide a failed wartime leader with such a golden opportunity for salvation.

Carpe diem, Mr. President. The chicken pita is on me.

Dan Friedman is a political commentator based in New York.
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