The recent death of former US president George H W Bush has brought to mind a decision he made at the end of the first Gulf War, after the US-led coalition drove the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and were pursuing the demoralized Iraqi army north toward Baghdad and the potential overthrow of the Saddam Hussein government. Bush declared that the objective of the operation, driving Iraq out of Kuwait, had been achieved and thus the war had been won, and he ordered that the military operations cease and allied forces evacuate Iraqi territory.
Bush was roundly criticized for this decision, the argument being that Saddam’s unprovoked attack on Kuwait was the perfect pretext to get rid of a regime that had invaded Iran, tried to produce nuclear weapons (until its facilities were destroyed by the Israeli air force) and now had invaded another neighboring country and threatened the world’s oil supplies.
I was among those critics and they, and I, were wrong.
His son, George W Bush, after the attacks on September 11, 2001, on the New York twin towers and the Pentagon, did the opposite of his father. First he invaded Afghanistan, which was harboring the leadership of al-Qaeda, the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks, after demanding their surrender and being refused. The Taliban regime was quickly defeated, but instead of turning the government over to the Northern Alliance and withdrawing, the US and its allies remained in Afghanistan to oversee the “democratization” of the country.
In 2003, despite no visible progress in Afghanistan, the US invaded Iraq and after three weeks entered Baghdad and overthrew the Saddam regime. Again, instead of finding a compliant general and turning the country over to him after demanding and receiving pledges of purging the upper ranks of the armed forces, police and civil authorities of Saddam loyalists, Bush Junior decided to remain in Iraq to “democratize” that country.
At least in the case of Afghanistan the overthrow of the government was justified because of its support of al-Qaeda. The invasion of Iraq was unjustified on any basis. Saddam was not a threat to the US even if it in fact had had chemical and biological weapons (“WMD”), which it did not in fact have.
Bush Junior was determined from the beginning of his presidency to destroy Saddam because Saddam had tried to have his father assassinated. Thus hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives over the past 15 years have been wasted because of the decision of the president of the United States to pursue personal revenge.
The US is still in Iraq and Afghanistan and now in Syria also. Bush Senior avoided entering the swamp, and he was right. Bush Junior jumped in, and the swamp has not yet released its prisoners.
Indeed, having been caught, the problem becomes, how to get out? President Barack Obama withdrew from Iraq and the result was the abominable ISIS (or Islamic State) taking over vast areas of Iraq and Syria. Thus reversing the disastrous decision to go in in the first place was replaced by an equally disastrous decision to evacuate, which not long after had to be reversed yet again and more years and more treasure and lives spent in defeating Islamic State (of course, both al-Qaeda and ISIS, despite defeats, still exist and are actively pursuing terrorist activities in various parts of the world).
Now the Donald Trump administration has announced that it is going to repeat the failed Obama policy by evacuating its forces from Syria, leaving the path open for Iran to complete its march to the sea, threatening the security of Israel and the Arab Gulf states and abandoning its faithful allies in the fight against ISIS, the Kurds. The cycle of error upon error continues, validating the saying “No one ever learns anything from history except that no one ever learns anything from history.”
Indeed, folk wisdom, based on long generations of practical experience with the world and its many pitfalls, can well be applied to this dismal story:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
“Leave well enough alone.”
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
It would be well if politicians (there are no statesmen any longer, as was Bush Senior) would pay attention to such wisdom. The withdrawal of American forces from Syria will totally destabilize a region where finally some degree of stability was being forged after years of costly efforts and multiple mistakes on all sides.
Lesson: Don’t enter the swamp, but if you do, make sure you don’t leave it in worse condition than before you entered.
RIP, George H W Bush. Those of us who knew you personally will miss you greatly, for many reasons.