Bush's Wars

March 15, 2012

While the Obama administration struggles to disentangle itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly a decade after George W. Bush's absurd "mission accomplished" boast of May 2003, it is useful to have this clear and succinct account of how Washington embarked on wars in both these countries, how these campaigns have been fought, and how officials insisted that they were intimately linked - two components of a single "War on Terror".

Terry Anderson begins with the historical background, showing how the US decision to attack both Afghanistan and Iraq in succession, in the wake of al-Qaeda's assault on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, was shaped by the perceived "lessons" of previous experience, notably the first Gulf War. His interesting presentation of this earlier episode shows the determination of US policymakers at the time not to conquer and occupy Saddam Hussein's Iraq once they had expelled his forces from Kuwait. In 1994, we find Dick Cheney, who had served as secretary of defense to the first President Bush and would serve as vice-president to the second, declaring: "That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily see bits of Iraq flying off...If we'd gone to Baghdad, we'd have been all alone. There would have been a US occupation of Iraq." We find ex-president Bush senior adding (in 1998) that "to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have...incurred incalculable human and political costs...the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land".

By 2001, however, US frustration with Saddam had reached such a pitch that Washington's overriding reaction to the Twin Towers outrage was to forget such wise words of caution and to seize the occasion - to, in the words of secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, "get Iraq". The view that Saddam should be blamed for an attack that was manifestly the work of al-Qaeda prevailed despite a warning by Richard Clarke, the White House's "anti-terrorism czar", that "having been attacked by Al-Qaeda, for us now to go bombing Iraq would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor".

Before recounting the two campaigns, Anderson gives a useful and highly relevant survey of the historical legacy of the two countries concerned: the fragile and unstable state of Iraq, assembled from disparate and barely compatible components to suit British imperial interests after 1918, and the primitive quasi-polity of Afghanistan, the "graveyard" not only of those same interests in Victorian times and later, but also of Russian ones as recently as the 1980s.

Once military victory seemed to have been achieved - in 2001 in Afghanistan and two years later in Iraq - US policymakers began to realise that although the first phase of regime change (the destruction of the old) was relatively simple, the next stages of reconstruction (not least the task of "nation-building" in two such fragmented societies) were vastly more complex and challenging.

The rest of the book, covering the period from 2003 to 2010, presents an unsparing catalogue of the shortcomings and blunders of US policy, especially in Iraq: the thoughtless dismantling of the whole of the old armed forces and civil administration; the toleration of looting that cost billions of dollars; and such horrors as the prison of Abu Ghraib and other maltreatment of the local population. If the original portrayal by the "neoconservatives" of a unity of interests between the Iraqis and al-Qaeda was untrue, America's occupation record soon contributed to its becoming a reality.

Anderson mentions the role of Tony Blair's Britain in these lamentable events only in passing (inevitably, Blair's role as Bush's yes-man is confirmed), but as an account of the central theme, America's role, the book is reliable and rewarding.

Bush's Wars

By Terry H. Anderson. Oxford University Press. 304pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780199747528. Published 8 September 2011

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