In his Saturday radio address, George Bush described Iraqi insurgents as a "small faction." Meanwhile, people actually on the scene described a rebellion with widespread support.
Isn't it amazing? A year after the occupation of Iraq began, Mr. Bush and his inner circle seem more divorced from reality than ever.
Events should have cured the Bush team of its illusions. After all, before the invasion Tim Russert asked Dick Cheney about the possibility that we would be seen as conquerors, not liberators, and would be faced with "a long, costly and bloody battle." Mr. Cheney replied, "Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators." Uh-huh.
But Bush officials seem to have learned nothing. Consider, for example, the continuing favor shown to Ahmad Chalabi. Last year the neocons tried to install Mr. Chalabi in power, even ferrying his private army into Iraq just behind our advancing troops. It turned out that he had no popular support, and by now it's obvious that suspicions that we're trying to put Mr. Chalabi on the throne are fueling Iraqi distrust. According to Arnaud de Borchgrave of U.P.I., however, administration officials gave him control of Saddam's secret files — a fine tool for blackmail — and are letting him influence the allocation of reconstruction contracts, a major source of kickbacks.
And we keep repeating the same mistakes. The story behind last week's uprising by followers of Moktada al-Sadr bears a striking resemblance to the story of the wave of looting a year ago, after Baghdad fell.
In both cases, officials were unprepared for an obvious risk. According to The Washington Post: "One U.S. official said there was not even a fully developed backup plan for military action in case Sadr opted to react violently. The official noted that when the decision [to close Sadr's newspaper] was made, there were very few U.S. troops in Sadr's strongholds south of Baghdad."
If we're lucky, the Sadrist uprising will eventually fade out, just as the postwar looting did; but the occupation's dwindling credibility has taken another huge blow.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush, who once challenged his own father to go mano a mano, is still addicted to tough talk, and still personalizes everything.
Again and again, administration officials have insisted that some particular evildoer is causing all our problems. Last July they confidently predicted an end to the insurgency after Saddam's sons were killed. In December, they predicted an end to the insurgency after capturing Saddam himself. Six weeks ago — was it only six weeks? — Al Qaeda was orchestrating the insurgency, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the root of all evil. The obvious point that we're facing widespread religious and nationalist resentment in Iraq, which is exploited but not caused by the bad guy du jour, never seems to sink in.
The situation in Falluja seems to have been greatly exacerbated by tough-guy posturing and wishful thinking. According to The Jerusalem Post, after the murder and mutilation of American contractors, Mr. Bush told officials that "I want heads to roll." Didn't someone warn him of the likely consequences of attempting to carry out a manhunt in a hostile, densely populated urban area?
And now we have a new villain. Yesterday Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez declared that "the mission of the U.S. forces is to kill or capture Moktada al-Sadr." If and when they do, we'll hear once again that we've turned the corner. Does anyone believe it?
When will we learn that we're not going to end the mess in Iraq by getting bad guys? There are always new bad guys to take their place. And let's can the rhetoric about staying the course. In fact, we desperately need a change in course.
The best we can realistically hope for now is to turn power over to relatively moderate Iraqis with a real base of popular support. Yes, that mainly means Islamic clerics. The architects of the war will complain bitterly, and claim that we could have achieved far more. But they've been wrong about everything so far — and if we keep following their advice, Iraq really will turn into another Vietnam.
Originally published in The New York Times, 4.13.04