Another win for George Bush

STONE the crows! That’s another dictator gone thanks in no small part to French and British airpower – oh and the Americans, although there is not as much coverage of their role.

Certainly the British and French provided the Libyan resistance with the air supremacy they needed. But US technology fritzed Gadaffi’s command, control and communications, US Tomahawk missiles took out targets at the start of the campaign and US air tankers helped keep the allies above their targets. [i] No one is talking much about what their drones did but it seems a US unmanned aircraft accompanying a French fighter stopped Gadaffi’s convoy just before he was killed.[ii]

Of course we don’t talk about Americans fighting for freedom, neither do the Americans – all because of Iraq.

This confuses the Crows, because if there was a war to rid the world of a wretch, Gulf War II was it.

And while the Brits and the French are patting themselves on the back over Libya, nobody much noticed that the liberation of Iraq came to a (sort of) successful end this week, with confirmation that the last 39,000 US troops would be out at year’s end.[iii] Barack Obama wanted to leave 4000 trainers in placed but the Iraqis would not grant them legal immunity and so the Yanks are going home.[iv]

The irony is that two fair dinkum former colonial powers are being praised when the idealism of the Americans under George W Bush is an embarrassment, even to themselves.

The problem with the war to liberate Iraq is less what the Yanks did than the way they explained and managed it.

For a start the Bush administration never got its story straight. After September 11 the realists wanted Saddam gone on the not entirely unreasonable grounds that he had form on using weapons of mass destruction. As Dick Cheney puts it

When we looked around the world in those first months after 9/11, there was no place more likely to be a nexus between terrorism and WMD capability than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. With the benefit of hindsight – even taking into account that some of the intelligence we received was wrong – that assessment still holds true. We could not ignore the threat or wish it away, hoping naively that the crumbling sanctions regime would contain Saddam. The security of our nation and of our friends and our allies required that we act. And so we did. [v]

Apart (and admittedly it is an enormous exclusion) from the absence of the assumed WMD, Cheney has a case. But realism was not the only, even the dominant reason for war, idealism was.

George Bush believes in “the transformative power of liberty.” Just as Woodrow Wilson considered he was obliged to remake Europe into democratic nation states at the end of WWI George W Bush thought by giving Saddam the shove he could create the preconditions for democracy. This was both a moral duty and the most pragmatic self-interest:

The Middle East was the center of a global ideological struggle. On one side were decent people who wanted to live in dignity and peace. On the other were extremists who sought to impose their radical views through violence and intimidation. … The best way to protect our countries in the long run was to counter their dark vision with a more compelling alternative. That alternative was freedom. People who could choose their leaders through the ballot box would be less likely to turn to violence. [vi]

The faux realists around him never liked this. In his score-settling, arse-covering memoir, Don Rumsfeld says President Bush “often expressed his belief that freedom was the gift of the Almighty. He seemed to feel almost duty-bound to help expand the frontiers of freedom in the Middle East.” In contrast Rumsfeld “believed in expanding the frontiers of freedom where possible, but that goal had to be tempered by our limited ability to achieve it.” [vii]

It is a dispute as old as the US – and one its enemies never understand. The conservatives do not want an economic empire, they would rather let the world rot than police it. (With natural gas based energy sufficiency becoming a possibility, the Crows wonder whether the US will loose interest in the Middle East.)

But Bush, not Rumsfeld was right. While the connection is not complete, the democracy movements across the Middle East only got going after the Iraqis started getting the hang of elections and representative democracy.

This does not excuse the appalling mess the US made of peace keeping in Iraq. The State Department did not go into Iraq with a plan to build a political system. The military for the first five years had no clue how to stop theocratic terrorists slaughtering civilians.

That the Bush Administration has a great deal to answer for is explained by the way Rumsfeld spends so much of his memoir explaining why the disaster on his watch was everybody else’s fault. There are millions of Iraqis who lost loved ones who will question the bloody price of the “transformative power’’ of the democracy.

But Bush was right to believe that people all over the Middle East and Maghreb would overturn their dictators given half a chance, that it is nonsense on stilts to argue that there is anything in any culture or religion that prevents ordinary people from grasping that free elections, the rule of law and property rights are always in their interest.

As Mr Bush put it nearly a decade back, “time after time, observers have questioned whether this country or that people or this group are ready for democracy, as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress. In fact, the daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress.” [viii]

Dictators are gone or are going all over the Middle East. It may not look like US democracy (which given the quality of debate in the Republican primaries is no bad thing) and it may not work out.

But at least Libyans are the latest people who look like they will get a say, of one sort or other, in how they are governed.

It must terrify the secular dictatorship in Damascus and the clerisy in Tehran.

And cheer up George W Bush.


[i] W.J. Hennigan, “U.S. is using electronic warfare to attack in waves,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, Brendan Nicholson, RAAF fighter-bombers to become ‘Growlers’, The Australian, October 19, James Oliphant, “GOP loathe to credit Obama for Kadafi’s end,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, Brian Knowlton, “In Libyan conflict European power was felt,” New York Times, October 20

[ii] “Predator drones and unmanned aerial vehicles,” New York Times, October 21

[iii] AFP, “US shuts north Iraq ahead of pullout,” October 21 @ recovered on October 22

[iv] Mark Landler, “US troops to leave Iraq by year’s end, Obama says,” New York Times, October 21

[v] Dick Cheney, In My Time: a personal and political memoir, (New York, 2011) 75

[vi] George W Bush, Decision Points (New York, 2010) 232

[vii] Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: a memoir, (New York, 2011) 499,500

[viii] George Bush, Bush, “Remarks at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy,” November 6 2003 @ recovered on October 21