Is U.S. Backpedaling Into a Quagmire?

Almost as soon as war in Iraq began, President Bush began to backpedal, equivocating on the optimistic predictions that had preceded the conflict.

The rosiest scenario, promulgated by virtually every administration official, was the specter of millions of Iraqis throwing down their arms at first sight of American troops, lining the streets and cheering them as liberators. Television commentator Chris Matthews called this the "gold standard" for gauging the war's success. Such a picture is surely the image the administration wishes to promulgate by naming the military action "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

In the first days of fighting, such jubilation has been far from evident. Despite the parade of retired military commanders on television touting the progress of the U.S. troops, resistance has been stiff. U.S. soldiers have not been welcomed by the Iraqi population. Moreover, hundreds of thousands elsewhere in the Islamic world have turned out to protest the American actions in what seems to be a perpetual demonstration.

In his March 17 speech throwing down the gauntlet for the offensive attack, President Bush promised a short war. Almost instantly the administration revised its scenario. Bush told the American public on March 19 with the opening volley that the war would be longer and harder than anticipated. Since then, weather has not cooperated. Sandstorms and heat have inhibited military operations. The longer these operations last, the more difficult they will become. Heat, humidity and wind increase significantly as summer approaches. By May or June, if the war lasts that long, military operations may be at a standstill.

The "coalition" of nations helping the United States, touted so heavily by the White House, turns out to be mostly lip service from remote, miniscule states. Aside from Britain and Australia, the largest contribution of actual fighting forces has come from Poland, which sent several hundred troops, mostly non-combatants. The sober truth is that most of those sacrificed in battle will be Americans.

This also means that the administration will pay the billions the war will cost out of American taxpayers' pockets. President Bush has already requested nearly $75 billion. Less than half a billion of that is earmarked for humanitarian aid, and only $1.4 billion for reconstruction of Iraq. Almost all of the money will be blown up.

Pro-war pundits have had to do significant revisions regarding post-war prospects.

"Instant democracy" in an ethnically integrated post-war Iraq was predicted by many -- most prominently by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and White House cheerleader and National Standard editor William Kristol. This too is looking very shaky, as strange activities on the Northern Front call into question the status of the Kurdish and Turkoman regions. Turkish troops in that area make the annexation of all or part of the region a looming possibility. This would touch off an internal war in the north, hindering integration of the nation.

Shi'a leaders in the South, noting the majority status of their population, are already demanding control of government, raising the possibility of a Shi'a dominated region in Southwest Asia. This region would reach from the Afghan border to Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia and to the Mediterranean in Southern Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other Sunni states in the region are horrified at this prospect.

However, the greatest revision is yet to come. American troops have not found the weapons of mass destruction that were the ostensible reason for the war. Neither have the Iraqis yet employed chemical and biological weapons, which Washington predicted. The Bush administration will have to concoct some very serious spin if these materials are not discovered.

Now that the war has begun, it is unrealistic to expect that the United States will stop or pull back, barring disaster. However, Americans can pray for no further bad news. There is a fairly predictable relationship between public sacrifice and public support. If the war lasts longer than three weeks, and if loss of American life begins to exceed two to three thousand, Americans will begin to seriously question the viability of the conflict.

At that point, the Bush administration would be in very serious trouble. Let us hope that every optimistic prediction for the war is true. There would be nothing messier than being trapped in a quagmire, not able to go forward, and no longer able to backpedal out.

PNS contributor William O. Beeman (william_beeman@brown.edu) teaches anthropology and is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His forthcoming book is "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."

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