After carefully crafted U.S. public relations were foiled for weeks by photos of sandstorms and friendly-fire mayhem, American POWs, and terrified and dead Iraqi civilians, the White House finally got a shot it must have hoped would come sooner: U.S. soldiers lounging in easy chairs in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
"Saddam Sat Here," read the headline on the San Francisco Chronicle's Web site Monday.
So now we are another day and a few hundred deaths closer to sitting where Saddam sat: in charge of a fractious, ruined Muslim country in the heart of the Arab world. The White House will soon declare "victory," but even if Baath loyalists, the remnants of the Republican Guard, religious warriors and suicide bombers cannot mount an effective guerrilla war, the most dangerous days are ahead for the United States.
This battle is for the hearts and minds of Iraqis, Americans and the rest of the world, and the traps we'll face are much greater than those posed by an ill-armed, poorly led regime. As an occupying army in a nation with which it has no cultural affinity, the United States has to accomplish miracles: build from scratch a functioning democracy in a country full of sharply divided nationalist, religious and tribal passions, and with no history of political freedom -- and do it by force without antagonizing the populace.
The price of failure will be more terrorism, more death of innocents, more damage to the U.S. economy, renewal of a global arms race and the potential for a chaotic regional war. We have won nothing yet.
Already, Jay Garner, the U.S.-designated interim ruler of Iraq, is drawing flak for his close ties to Ariel Sharon and other Israeli hawks. Garner's likely Iraqi sidekick, Ahmed Chalabi, has not been in Iraq since 1958 and is also known for his conviction in absentia in Jordan on charges of financial fraud. We are in a nearly no-win situation because President Bush demagogically shifted the fears brought on by 9/11 to justify the invasion of a nation that represented scant military threat to the United States.
This and other glaring contradictions have been obscured by yammering talk-show yahoos who have been attempting to equate dissent with treason and capitulation. Of course, this is ridiculous. In the United States, debate, even in wartime, is the patriotic duty of every citizen. After all, the virtue of democracy is that the truth will drive out error in a true dialogue of a free people. So why, as the dominant economic, political, cultural and military force in the world, are we acting as if freedom of thought is a luxury we can ill afford?
Unfortunately, this narrow intolerance for debate has been exemplified by our president, whose vituperative attacks on longtime democratic allies such as France and Germany set a new low for American diplomacy. Further, Bush's belief -- according to his close friend, Commerce Secretary Don Evans -- that God has called him to wage war on Iraq, leaves little room for legitimate argument.
When our leaders believe they are speaking for a Christian God while invading a Muslim country, we should be deeply alarmed. Thus the debate over U.S. goals is as warranted now as it ever has been.
The key ideologues running the Bush administration boldly admit they are attempting by force to kick-start a radical realignment of the Muslim world, using an illegitimate strategy of preemptively and violently trying to remake nations in our own image. Those who find this a dangerous and reckless notion should be condemned as betraying the nation's heritage of liberty only if they remain silent.
Fulfilling this duty as citizens is especially crucial when much of the mass media has seemed comfortable simply cheerleading behind the logo "Operation Iraqi Freedom," rarely daring to mention the victor's spoils of the world's second-largest reserves of oil.
Of course, the war's omnipresent slogan is a complete abandonment of the rationale Americans were given for this war: destroying the weapons of mass destruction, most frighteningly nuclear bombs, that Saddam was allegedly ready to hand over to al-Qaida terrorists. Never mind that there is no evidence Saddam or Iraq aided or abetted that terrorist gang.
Saddam clearly did not pose an imminent military threat to the United States. If Saddam could have been disarmed through global pressure and U.N. inspections, as now appears to be the case, then history will judge this to have been another crusade by a big power to impose its "superior" values on a less "enlightened" world, while conveniently gaining control of its resources.