The United States show little sign of being a country at war. (Not so Britain, which has turned into a national version of The Village in the cult TV show The Prisoner.) Security arrangements at the airports are by now familiarly strict, but travel on the bus or subway seems relaxed. (New York City bus drivers are extremely helpful, I should say. Bus is an altogether more comfortable experience than the notorious subway.) A drive upstate revealed a flag at half-mast (which may have had nothing to do with the war) and several cars displaying anti-war bumper stickers. And that's about it.
The war, however, does feature prominently on news programming, as my Internet listening often reveals. Without doubt, the American voter is going to face a clear-cut choice between a candidate who will set a timetable for withdrawal and one who will continue the war until some future point.
The country has been at war in Iraq for five years (longer than either World War or the Korean War), and in Afghanistan for six and a half. There is no sign, either, that the conflict is nearing some kind of resolution. Since the war is news, not history, I don't care to write about it. However, we can look back five years and draw some notes of historical interest.
I was stimulated to write about the war by an article from an anti-war perspective, that attempted to list twelve reasons for getting out of Iraq. Rather than focus on the rhetoric, I'd prefer to look at the assertions the articles make, in particular those that relate to strategic decisions taken five years ago that have implications for the present.
Point number (1) reminds us that the Coalition commanders were concerned about the potential for Baghdad to become "Stalingrad-Mesopotamia". The author further claims that this is what has happened, in slow motion, as Iraqi government forces struggle with militia for control of neighbourhoods. I think, though, that from a strategic point of view the Occupation authorities have got to believe that they are now dealing with "Stalingrad-Mesopotamia" with more advantages than they envisioned in early 2003. They control the government which gives them well-armed supporters and solid control of key sectors of the city. If this option had been offered in 2003, I feel fairly confident in asserting that U.S. commanders would have faced the task with more equanimity.
Point (2) is more interesting and telling. Did the U.S. ever have an "exit strategy"? The article claims that the Pentagon already had plans for constructing large bases, to support a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq, even before the invasion began. It certainly is the case that the supplemental funding request issued on March 25, 2003, five days after the war began, featured $200 million for construction projects, including $85 million for Air Force base construction, as well as the authority for the Secretary of Defense to transfer any of $60 billion allocated to fight the war to construction projects. (A pdf of the request is available from here.)
Subsequently, in September, the White House's funding for the next financial year offered a more opaque appeal for construction. There's nearly $120 million for the army, at least $18 million for the air force, and up to $500 million from a contingency account. The funding for the specified projects was to be available until the end of Fiscal Year 2008 (i.e., next September). (A pdf of this request is available from here.)
Finally, just over five years ago to the day, the New York Times published an article (registration required) forecasting maintaining four bases for U.S. forces in Iraq for an unspecified period. The article is cautious, and states that "These goals do not contradict the administration's official policy of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, [sources] say." However, it's difficult to see how, in the context of the financing requested a month earlier, one could not cynically take the view that by announcing both a rapid withdrawal and an enduring presence, the Bush Administration could serve its goals whatever it chose to do later in 2003.
Thus, I think point (2) is essentially true. Bush and his associates had no "exit strategy" because they did not plan on an exit. Like any good leader, they kept their options open. However, it is clear that the American people were given the information about a long-standing commitment in Iraq. If you supported the war in 2003, you had to embrace the administration's willingness to stay there for decades. There was no middle position available.
(To be continued.)