Difficult Tasks

Kevin Drum, reacting to recent problems, wonders

If President Bush had faced the problem squarely a year ago and been honest about what needed to be done — several hundred thousand troops for the better part of a decade — would he have gotten the popular support he needed for the war? Maybe not. But by not doing it he’s guaranteed an even worse outcome: going to war and losing popular support afterward.

On the one hand, the president has repeatedly warned us that things would be difficult:

March 2003 – War Announcement:

A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict. And helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment.

May 2003 – End of Major Combat Operations:

We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We’re bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous. We’re pursuing and finding leaders of the old regime, who will be held to account for their crimes. We’ve begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated. We’re helping to rebuild Iraq, where the dictator built palaces for himself, instead of hospitals and schools. And we will stand with the new leaders of Iraq as they establish a government of, by, and for the Iraqi people.

The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. Then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq


The war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide. No act of the terrorists will change our purpose, or weaken our resolve, or alter their fate. Their cause is lost. Free nations will press on to victory.

2004 SOTU:

Having broken the Baathist regime, we face a remnant of violent Saddam supporters. Men who ran away from our troops in battle are now dispersed and attack from the shadows. These killers, joined by foreign terrorists, are a serious, continuing danger. Yet we’re making progress against them. The once all-powerful ruler of Iraq was found in a hole, and now sits in a prison cell. Of the top 55 officials of the former regime, we have captured or killed 45. Our forces are on the offensive, leading over 1,600 patrols a day and conducting an average of 180 raids a week. We are dealing with these thugs in Iraq, just as surely as we dealt with Saddam Hussein’s evil regime.

The work of building a new Iraq is hard, and it is right. And America has always been willing to do what it takes for what is right. Last January, Iraq’s only law was the whim of one brutal man. Today our coalition is working with the Iraqi Governing Council to draft a basic law, with a bill of rights. We’re working with Iraqis and the United Nations to prepare for a transition to full Iraqi sovereignty by the end of June.

As democracy takes hold in Iraq, the enemies of freedom will do all in their power to spread violence and fear. They are trying to shake the will of our country and our friends, but the United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins. The killers will fail, and the Iraqi people will live in freedom.

On the other hand, as Kevin has rightly noted, we grossly underestimated–or undersold–the financial costs of the war, mainly because we relied on the (frankly reasonable) expectation that an oil-rich country could shoulder much of the financial burden of its own reconstruction. Of course, some on the other side overestimated the cost, some by several orders of magnitude.

It’s a difficult task to simultaneously keep support for the war effort and troop morale high while warning that things might well get worse before they get better. Still, I wish the Administration had done a better job of preparing the public for the type of activities that are ongoing at the moment given that they now tell us that it was all expected. While there have been some mentions here and there about a pre-transfer of sovereignty offensive by insurgents, it certainly hasn’t been highlighted.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    Anyone who is intellectually honest knew this was going to be a long hard battle. But what this criticism, and much of the other criticism level at Bush, is that he does not have the ability to predict the future.

    Did you or anyone predict EXACLY what was going to happen? Then whey the hell is Bush to be blamed for not having that ability?

    The reality is that the Kevins of the world will pounce on any problems in Iraq gleefully and make political hay. It is partisan bull shit and frankly is getting tiresome.

    We can choose to win the war on terrorism or we can choose to not win it.

    The ignorance of the latter is unfathomable. But that is what many would have us do.

  2. Kevin Drum says:

    My point is actually a little different. Bush and others have indeed said that the war might be a long one and we should be prepared to stick it out. It was not said very often or very loudly, but it was said.

    However, if you move away from what they said to what they did, it’s a different story. In practically every phase of planning they made it explicit that they expected things to go pretty well and thought we would be able to (mostly) pull out after a fairly short period. I can only think of two reasons for this: either they truly didn’t know what they were getting into, or else they knew that if they blew their story in any concrete way (higher taxes, more troops, serious projections of how long we’d be in Iraq, etc.) they would lose public support. So instead they just made vague pronouncements about “sticking it out” and left it at that.

    I supported the war until it became clear that (a) there was something very fishy about the WMD story and (b) it became clear that they were not truly committed to the postwar reconstruction. Without that, the war wasn’t worth it, and I changed sides.

  3. Boyd says:

    I’m sure others have said this to you many times, Kevin, but I can’t let your statement pass unchallenged.

    Regardless of the hyped rationale for the war, which hasn’t been borne out, if you believe the war wasn’t worth freeing the Iraqi people and the rest of the world from Saddam Hussein, well, you’re just wrong.

    I agree that much of the reconstruction has been bumbled as a result of poor planning, so it’s more painful than it could have been. But it’s still worth it.

  4. Paul says:

    OK Kevin but AGAIN it comes down to you blaming Bush for not being able to predict the future.

    The infrastructure WAS far worse than we thought it was. We assumed Saddam would pretend to take care of his country. The bulk of the repairs we had to do were not because of errant bombs but Saddam’s neglect.

    And you could say that the amount of insurgent activity was higher than anticipated. But, maybe you forgot the scenes from a year ago this week. There were many, many people throwing flowers at our feet and naming their children George Bush.

    Not all of them obviously.

    But I searched your blog high and low and I never saw you predict that insurgents would be fighting 365 days later.

    The simple fact you are avoiding is that this is a war not a made for T.V. movie. Nobody has a freaking crystal ball. War is ugly and anyone with a brain knows that.

    It is REAL easy to say a year later “Well, Bush did not predict blah blah blah”

    But until you can point to where you predicted the future with 100% precision, I’ll remain unimpressed.