Bush's rhetoric remains high-flown, but his arguments for war have fallen apart
By Rupert Cornwell
28 January 2005
The flag of liberty has been firmly planted in Iraq, George Bush declared on Wednesday, saying he was encouraged by the "incredible bravery" shown by Iraqis who will vote in the country's elections on Sunday.
It was a typical flourish of high-flown rhetoric. But the inescapable reality is that the President's arguments have all but fallen apart. After thousands of deaths and 21 months of untamed insurgency, President Bush still clings to two basic assertions to justify the invasion of Iraq. The world, he says, is better off without Saddam Hussein, and Iraq all along has been part of the "war on terror".
Both arguments featured large in his re-election campaign. Both were wheeled out at his press conference on Wednesday, the first of his second term. With the first, few would disagree; pre-war Iraq was a nasty place. But the second, stands the facts on their head.
Under Saddam, Iraq was a backwater of international terrorism, a secular Arab regime excoriated by Osama bin Laden. The only area of the country where al-Qa'ida had any foothold was in the remote north-east, where the dictator's writ scarcely ran.
Even Colin Powell was embarrassed trying to prove links between Saddam and al-Qa'ida during his infamous presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003. Now, to borrow a metaphor from American sport, resistance has turned Iraq into the "Superbowl" of international terrorism.
The self-confidence of Mr Bush and the neoconservatives is unshaken, notwithstanding the news that Douglas Feith, a controversial neoconservative architect of the Iraq war, will step down this summer - the first change in the civilian leadership of the Pentagon since President Bush took office in January 2001. As under secretary of defence for policy, the third ranking post at the Defence Department, the boyish-looking Mr Feith has played a key role in Iraq policy, both before and after the invasion. Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, said yesterday that he "will be missed".
But it is becoming daily more obvious that America's unprovoked invasion of an Arab country that posed no threat to its security has made the world not more but distinctly less safe. The reasons are fourfold.
First, it has distracted attention from the original terrorist threat: the al-Qa'ida network that launched the attacks against New York and Washington and yearns to acquire weapons of mass destruction whose use would dwarf the impact of 11 September.
This is not to say that the US has abandoned the hunt for Bin Laden. It is simply to acknowledge a truism that any US administration finds it virtually impossible to focus on two objectives at once. Resources that would have been focused on international terrorism have been switched to Iraq.
Second, the ousting of Saddam can only have hardened the resolve of Iran and North Korea - the two other "axis of evil" members in the sights of Mr Bush - to acquire the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never possessed. The irony of the invasion was that it removed the least menacing regime of the three.
The White House points to Libya's abandonment of its WMD ambitions as vindication of its Iraq policy. More probably, Colonel Gaddafi's decision reflected a simple calculation that international isolation was no longer in his country's interest. In all likelihood, it would have happened even if Saddam were still in power.
The lesson Tehran and Pyongyang have drawn from the invasion is that the sooner they go nuclear, the safer from US attack they will be. For all its rhetoric, one reason this administration has not gone after Iran and North Korea is because they are stronger, more dangerous opponents than Iraq.
Iran, three times more populous than Iraq, may be within a year or two of building a bomb. North Korea could, according to the CIA, already have half a dozen nuclear devices, holding South Korea to ransom.
The third unintended consequence has been the spread of anti-Americanism across the Islamic world. The toppling of Saddam was supposed to have a domino effect, bringing peace and democracy to the entire Middle East. If anything, the reverse is true. The chaos and violence of Iraq is the least appealing model imaginable. The abuse at Abu Ghraib and the evidence of torture at Guantanamo Bay - for which no senior US soldier or policymaker has been punished - has only made Washington appear more hypocrital than ever, and made thousands of young Muslims even more susceptible to the propaganda of the hardliners.
And, fourthly, there is Iraq itself. This week, Mr Bush pointed to the election as proof that Iraq is changing for the better. Senior intelligence officials - the very ones whose warnings were tossed aside in the rush to war - beg to differ. A couple of weeks ago, America's National Intelligence Council, the research arm of the US intelligence community, warned that Iraq had become "a magnet for international terrorist activity", in the words of its director, Robert Hutchings. The country had become a recruiting ground and trainingcamp for terrorists.
Even if the election were to restore a modicum of stability, the foreign insurgents would simply "go home, wherever home is" to continue their war against the US from new bases in other countries. Within a decade, the NIC predicted, al-Qa'ida and its allies will have metamorphosed into "an eclectic array of groups, cells and individuals, that need no headquarters."
Such, barring a miracle, may be the legacy of Iraq. Despite the botched planning for the post-invasion period, the war's architects remain in place. The President's second-term address, and the jaunty self-belief of his press conference, do not suggest any change of heart. Iraq has made the world a more dangerous place and will continue to do so.