THE whole world was watching. Some quarters were skeptical from the beginning. Others were supportive but not overwhelmingly so. The pre-emptive war business the United States embarked on more than a year ago was a serious departure from precedent. Targeting Iraq for the untested American strategy to attack first and ask questions later was a curious if unconvincing choice for many in the international community.
But that's all water down the Euphrates now. It is abundantly clear the "Mission Accomplished" declared from the festooned deck of an aircraft carrier last May was a presidential boast without backing. True, the "shock and awe" part of barging into Iraq and relieving Baghdad of its regime set an impressive military record for speed of war. But anything less in a lopsided contested between the greatest military power on earth and scattered Iraqi combat units would have been unthinkable.
Postwar Iraq proved to be more challenging, especially when the Iraqis decided to keep the war going against their U.S. occupiers. The U.S. government likes to lump all those who won't lay down their arms to accept American direction and control of their government, their oil industry, and their way of life as insurgents akin to terrorists. But not all those who revolt against their liberators are agitators in search of a cause.
They are Iraqis in search of independence from foreigners running their country and patrolling their streets with armed military. But war is hell and America stumbles on, no closer to stability in the region or an exit strategy in Iraq than when the pre-emptive Bush doctrine was deployed against the irksome nemesis of the Bush clan.
And despite the fact that citizens were lied to about the primary rationale for giving pre-emptive war practical use in Iraq, Americans still support their commander in chief and his campaign to convert Iraq into a democratic oasis in a region dominated by theocratic and autocratic rule. That support is borne of the unshakable belief that the President and his lieutenants would never steer them wrong or put their sons and daughters at risk without good reason.
But public acceptance has dipped slightly. The Bush war against Iraqi holdouts is going badly. Assaults and ambushes against American soldiers are intensifying and casualties are climbing. The dead are coming home in flag-draped coffins on cargo conveyor belts as far as a photographer's eye can see. The disturbing sight could not be withheld from the public forever. Close to 800 troops have been killed. Thousands more have been maimed.
Unbeknownst to those risking life and limb in hostile Iraq, their commander in chief and key lieutenants were increasing the danger to them and their countrymen. They were doing it by allowing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers to continue unchallenged until everything from gross degradation to sexual assault, torture, and murder was graphically exposed to the world in pictures and videotapes taken by the cheeky American tormentors.
It was not the actions of a few, as asserted by an incumbent president running for re-election, but widespread mistreatment, as documented by the Red Cross. For a year, the organization says, it made repeated attempts in person and in writing to top U.S. officials to stop the abuses. Failing that, a month after the Pentagon finally decided to investigate one soldier's account in January, the Red Cross gave its full report to coalition forces.
Suddenly the whole world knew of American-made atrocities. Arab animosity toward all things American erupted with a vengeance not seen from the West Bank to Egypt and beyond. Belated apologies by the Bush Administration are worthless. There's no damage control for what Americans did to demean Islamic culture. And the American President standing by his man who presided over the debacle only inflames Arab sensibilities.
The death sentences of Americans, in and out uniform, have been written. The videotaped beheading of an American in Iraq starts a new wave of craziness. What happened for months at American-controlled Iraqi prisons was toxic. It played right into the anti-American rhetoric of terrorist recruiters everywhere. God knows what lasting hate they will breathe into receptive generations of new recruits.
With the rest of the world, Osama Bin Laden is also watching as America struggles to put the best face on its self-inflicted PR nightmare in Iraq and throughout the Arab global community. No doubt the mastermind of 9/11 is pleased with the considerable work the Bush Administration has unwittingly done on al-Qaeda's behalf.