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How Much Will We Accept?

On April 11, just 11 weeks before we were scheduled to turn the job of governing Iraq over to the Iraqis, Paul Bremer, the top American administrator in Iraq, was asked who will take the reins. “That’s a good question,” he replied.

Two days later, President Bush was asked the same question at a White House press conference. “You’ll find that out soon,” he replied.

In other words, there’s no one. We’re up to our chins in a snake pit and none of the locals are up to pulling us out – and U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan is telling us that we’d better hold our fire. “Violent military action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse,” he recently warned, a few hours after a U.S. soldier was killed in an ambush near Tel Afar, making April the bloodiest month for American forces in Iraq.

All told, things are currently not unlike what Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President Bush about prior to the war, according to Bob Woodward’s new book. Two months before the invasion of Iraq, reports Woodward, the former Army general told Bush that “you’re going to be owning this place” if he went to war. Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, called it “the Pottery Barn rule” of military action: “You break it, you own it,” according to Woodward.

More than a decade before Powell’s reported advice to Bush, there was another strong warning about Iraq, and very similar: “Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there.” That was Dick Cheney, 1991, in his job as Defense secretary, explaining why the first Bush administration decided not to invade Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein even though U.S forces had just kicked the stuffing out of the Iraqi army in Kuwait.

“How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there?,” asked Cheney. “I think to have American military forces engaged in a civil war inside Iraq would fit the description of quagmire, and we have absolutely no desire to get bogged down in that fashion.”

Some ten years later, in September 2001, Vice President Cheney declared: “Saddam Hussein is bottled up.” Two months before that, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice argued that Saddam had been contained: “We are able to keep arms from Hussein. His military forces have not been rebuilt.” Six months before that, Powell reported that Saddam “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction.” Further, said Powell, Saddam Hussein was “unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.” Everyone was singing from the same sheet: Sanctions had worked.

All of the above, it seems, still stands as correct. Cheney had it right in 1991. Once you’re in Baghdad, it’s not clear what you’ve got, not clear how you avoid a quagmire. Or as Bremmer now says about what’s next: “That’s a good question.”

Move forward to 2001, and Cheney still had it right, along with Powell and Rice, regarding the state of Iraq’s military. What’s turned up are no invoices of shipments of uranium from Africa, no unmanned planes capable of hitting Manhattan, no real army, no reconstituted nukes.

And now? On April 3, Lawrence F. Kaplan, a senior editor at The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Project on American Primacy in World Affairs, reported in The Washington Post on what level of casualties we’re willing to tolerate in Iraq, according to “a massive opinion poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates” in 1999. “The survey showed the public would tolerate, as a mean figure, 29,853 American fatalities,” reported Kaplan. Rounded off, that’s another 29,000.

May 5, 2004