Bush’s Iraq swagger a distant memory

In the heady days when US Marines toppled a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad, President George W. Bush was riding high on his mission to remake Iraq as a beacon of democracy.Now, the lights have dimmed on that adventure — and not just because of the power blackouts that still plague Iraq four and a half years after the deceptively easy US-led invasion.

Back then, Bush rode roughshod over widespread global opinion that the war would be a disaster. Six weeks after the March 2003 invasion, he appeared on an aircraft carrier under the banner “Mission accomplished.”

Now, the president is battling a Democratic-led Congress that is agitating for a quick exit of US troops, who have suffered more than 3,700 fatalities in Iraq. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range from 70,000 to 655,000.

The clamor has grown as General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and Baghdad ambassador Ryan Crocker get set to testify in Congress next week ahead of a White House report reviewing a seven-month-old military “surge.”

But the future holds only bad and worse choices for the United States in Iraq, according to respected foreign-policy scholar Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Arguing the case for “strategic patience” given oil-rich Iraq’s importance in a simmering region, Cordesman told a recent seminar after a visit to the country: “Our legacy, if we abandon Iraq, will not be quick or easy.

“It will be one of lasting suffering over five to 10 years.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans feel Bush was “too eager” to wage war in Iraq and is handling the conflict badly, a Harris Poll survey this week said. But another poll by UPI/Zogby said 54 percent believe the Iraq war is not lost.

Over the past year, several best-selling books have laid bare what critics say was the rank incompetence that marked Bush’s foray into Iraq, which was sold as a life-or-death mission to prevent Saddam from threatening his enemies with nuclear or chemical annihilation.

In “Fiasco,” Washington Post journalist Thomas Ricks argues that the invasion “was based on perhaps the worst war plan in American history,” one that “confused removing Iraq’s regime with the far more difficult task of changing the entire country.”

Vice President Dick Cheney, former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz are accused of an ideologically driven crusade against Saddam that ignored all the dangers inherent in the war.

Far too few troops were deployed, no thinking was given to a post-war Iraq, pro-US Iraqi exiles with shady pasts enjoyed undue influence, and the development expertise of other branches of the US government was shunned.

Policy appeared to be made on the fly, such as US viceroy Paul Bremer’s fateful edict to disband the Iraqi army and so throw thousands of armed and angry men onto the streets, helping to foster Iraq’s bloody insurgency.

In the newly published “Dead Certain: The Presidency of George Bush,” GQ magazine journalist Robert Draper quotes Bush as saying that Bremer surprised everyone with his order — a claim that the former occupation chief denies.

Draper’s account adds to a slew of portrayals of Bush as a curiously disengaged commander in chief, allowing his top officials to fight endless turf wars while Iraq burned and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda regrouped in Afghanistan.

Bush himself, who hinted at a possible reduction in US troops during a surprise visit to Iraq this week, is adamant that history will be his judge.

In a late August speech to US veterans of 20th century conflicts in Asia, he warned that a hasty withdrawal from Iraq would trigger a bloodbath like that in Southeast Asia after the US defeat and retreat from Vietnam.

“A free Iraq is not going to transform the Middle East overnight, but a free Iraq will be a massive defeat for Al-Qaeda,” he added.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid retorted: “Our nation was misled by the Bush administration in an effort to gain support for the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, leading to one of the worst foreign policy blunders in our history.”