WASHINGTON -- To mark the end of President Bush's "successful" first year fighting in Iraq, there were some odd moments on Friday's anniversary.
In Baghdad, the new "free" Arab journalists walked out on Secretary of State Colin Powell. In Warsaw, the president's No. 1 ally, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, complained that he had been "misled" by American intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. He said he would probably withdraw Polish troops, the presence of whom gave Washington a mirage of international cooperation, by this spring.
Across Iraq and into Europe, bombs went off in a growing spiral of terror that seems to make less and less political sense.
Strategically, this first anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq was also mired in confusion. Even as terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere were becoming more sophisticated (think of the Madrid bombings that changed a government), American troops were readying to be rotated from the complex Iraqi theater this spring. That means that all the savvy these men and women have acquired about a culture strange to Americans will be gone -- and exactly when the enemy is getting to know us far better.
Everywhere I go in our country and talk with the American military, I hear the same thing: They are loyal, but they are exhausted.
The careful husbandry that our leaders should have exercised over our armed forces is shamefully nonexistent. As one in three of the Army's 480,000 active-duty soldiers is overseas, the strain on the reserves is so high that officers warn members will not re-enlist. Our men and women have come to exist largely as self-protecting human islands in an Iraqi and Islamic sea of political and religious turbulence.
Just as the first reasons for the war evaporated like drops of water on the Iraq desert -- the Iraqi/al-Qaida "links," the horrendous weaponry, the terrorism "central" in Iraq -- new reasons have been churned forth by the fertile (and stubborn) imaginations in the White House and the Pentagon.
The neoconservatives' original arguments have transmogrified into: 1) the reason we're having trouble today is because we were "soft" on Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s, so now we have to be "tough" (Richard Perle), and 2) Iraq is working because now we've got all the terrorists in one country, where we can fight them, and not in the United States (George W. Bush).
In truth? During the '90s, Islamic fundamentalism grew because of 1) the American policy of leaving our Afghan fighter "allies" in the war against the Soviet Union high and dry after the Soviets pulled out in 1989, 2) the refusal of any administration, particularly this one, to seriously address the Israel-Palestine question, which remains at the core of Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism, and 3) the continued presence, until recently, of American troops on the "sacred" Muslim soil of Saudi Arabia.
As for getting all the terrorists in one place "where we can fight them," the president obviously didn't grasp what he was saying. A year ago, we went into Iraq because they supposedly were all there, and now we're staying there because suddenly they've all just gathered there. The funny thing is that the president is oddly right -- we have brought the terrorists to Iraq and, according to the analysis I've seen, we have substantially increased their numbers across the world through the hatred engendered by our presence and actions there.
Hey, a year ago, three-quarters of Indonesians were pro-American, according to polls and studies. Today that number is 15 percent. And Indonesia is not a country that has been deeply involved in the Middle East's problems -- until now.
But on this first anniversary, let us also try to be fair. A terrible tyrant has been overthrown and a country rather "liberated." The ideas behind "reforming" and "reconfiguring" the Arab world are admirable. There are new structures and institutions germinating in the problematic historical soils of Babylon, Nineveh and Ur.
The real question has always been: But can this work? If the bombs going off in Iraq are the results of an insurgency, and not a cabal of terrorists, it won't. Our history of these adventures does not offer great confidence: Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo (on the front burner again), Afghanistan, Haiti again and now Iraq. Were any of those really worth the price?
Another question to ponder on this first anniversary is, How could we as a nation have addressed the problem of international terrorism differently this last year?
The answer to that is sadly easy. We could have focused on the real terror threat, which is in Afghanistan; we could have worked with, and led, the rest of the world in that conflict and had its admiration; we could have grasped and used the conflict to gradually build representative and progressive systems and societies across the world -- just as we did after 1945.
Listening to the president Friday morning in the White House meeting with foreign diplomats and others as he extolled our great "success" in Iraq, I could only think, Gee, I wonder what failure would look like?
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