Senator Robert Byrd must have the same sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as the prophetess Cassandra. Her curse? She would foresee the future, cry out a warning, and then be scorned or ignored. Byrd’s speech to the Senate on February 12, when he castigated the Bush administration for its headlong rush to invade Iraq, is in retrospect an uncanny prophecy of the administration’s failures.
Byrd said, “We know who was behind the September 11 attacks on the United States. We know it was Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network. We have dealt with al Qaeda and with the Taliban government that sheltered it. We have
routed them from Afghanistan and we are continuing to pursue them in hiding… So where does Iraq enter the equation? No one in the Administration has been able to produce any solid evidence linking Iraq to the September 11 attack.”
Seven months after the war has been declared over, the Administration has never yet produced any such evidence. The reality is that there was no link.
Byrd warned that “Family members are being called to active military duty, with no idea of the duration of their stay or what horrors they may face. Communities are being left with less than adequate police and fire protection. Other essential services are also short-staffed. The mood of the nation is grim. The economy is stumbling.”
Was he right? Seven months later, we hear of a military stretched too thin with the large army of occupation needed in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan. Morale is dropping as tours of duty are extended and then extended again. As for the economy, after two huge tax cuts for the rich—touted as “job creation measures”—unemployment is at a twenty-year high, with almost three million jobs lost since this administration came into office. Emergency forces trying to cope with Hurricane Isabel are understaffed because so many reservists are overseas.
“The war in Afghanistan has cost us $37 billion so far,” said Byrd, “yet there is evidence that terrorism may already be starting to regain its hold in that region. We have not found bin Laden, and unless we secure the peace in Afghanistan, the dark dens of terrorism may yet again flourish in that remote and devastated land. Pakistan as well is at risk of destabilizing forces. This Administration has not finished the first war against terrorism and yet it is eager to embark on another conflict with perils much greater than those in Afghanistan. Is our attention span that short?”
Was he right? Seven months later, Bin Laden is still unaccounted for. Pakistan is increasingly unstable; in the bombing of a mosque on July 4, almost fifty people were killed. Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed. Very little of the financial aid promised for rebuilding the country has been delivered. The country has a U.S.-installed leader, Hamid Karzai, but in reality most of the country is being ruled by warlords. Basic services are in chaos—water, sewage, food distribution, electricity, schools—and almost nothing works. Human rights abuses abound. On July 29, Human Rights Watch released a 102-page report describing abuses “ordered, committed or condoned by government personnel in Afghanistan—soldiers, police, military and intelligence officials, and government ministers. Worse, these violations have been carried out by people who would not have come to power without the intervention and support of the international community.” Is our attention span that short? Apparently so.
Senator Byrd questioned the harsh tone adopted by the administration. “Has our senselessly bellicose language and our callous disregard of the interests and opinions of other nations increased the global race to join the nuclear club and made proliferation an even more lucrative practice for nations which need the income?” he asked.
Seven months later, we know the answer to that question. North Korea and Iran have both intensified their nuclear programs.
Byrd went on to question the administration’s plans for post-war Iraq. “Have we not learned that after winning the war one must always secure the peace? …We hear little about the aftermath of war in Iraq,” he pointed out. “In the absence of plans, speculation abroad is rife. Will we seize Iraq's oil fields, becoming an occupying power which controls the price and supply of that nation's oil for the foreseeable future? To whom do we propose to hand the reigns of power after Saddam Hussein?”
Seven months later, we know that the administration’s plans for post-war Iraq were sketchy at best, and based on wrongheaded assumptions. The country is in virtual chaos. More of our soldiers have been killed since the war “ended” than during the war itself. As one Pfc. wrote to The Oregonian, “When the war had just ended, we were the liberators, and all the people loved us. Convoys were like one long parade. Somewhere down the line, we became an occupation force in their eyes. We don't feel like heroes anymore…. Soldiers are being attacked, injured and killed every day. The rules of engagement are crippling. We are outnumbered. We are exhausted. We are in over our heads.”
The troop commitment needed to maintain control of Iraq far exceeds pre-war administration estimates, soldiers and civilians are killing each other every day, and the timetable for our occupation, at a cost of at least a billion dollars per week, extends indefinitely into the future.
As for the “transition of power,” administration plans to install the embezzler Ahmad Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles handpicked by Washington as the transitional figures for an “Iraqi government” have only fed anti-Americanism.
It is frustrating—no, it is far more than frustrating, it is heartrending that the venerable old senator could draw a dead-accurate vision of the future while speaking to a nearly-empty chamber. He deserves our respect and our attention; the administration—and his Senatorial colleagues—deserve our anger and contempt.
© Tony Russell, 2003