Postwar Chaos: Bush’s Undoing?

Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich."

It’s too early to suggest that peace in Iraq has already set some of the snares for President Bush that caught his father in 1991-92, although not having killed or captured Saddam Hussein could get politically hairy as the 2004 presidential season opens.

It’s also too early to say that the end of hostilities in the Persian Gulf is leaving Bush exposed to new hazards, as the end of hostilities in Vietnam did to Richard Nixon in 1973 or the peace negotiations in Europe did to Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

Still, it’s already possible to see Middle East circumstances falling into an old and unnerving pattern: victory on the battlefield metamorphosing into unexpected embarrassments in the diplomatic and geopolitical aftermath. There’s a good reason. Wars typically unleash new forces, alignments and confusions that begin to emerge only as the shooting part of the conflict tails off.


That’s happening again in 2003. The problems already visible -- revitalized Islamic terrorism, eroded U.S. alliances and credibility, the false premises of going to war and the ungovernability of Iraq -- may not develop quickly enough or harshly enough to defeat Bush in 2004. They could cost him his place in history, though.

During the 20th century, the U.S. fought five major wars: World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Four of the five gave the party in the White House victories to smile about when the armistice or peace was declared, but then left it holding the short end of the political stick. That came a year or two -- or four or five -- after unwise peace terms, postwar stresses, broken promises, diplomatic disappointments and war-related scandals had played out. Only the short Korean War, which can be considered part of the aftermath of World War II, doesn’t fit the pattern.

Although history repeats only in outline, it’s worth looking at the half a dozen factors that tripped up Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon and the first President Bush to see how many of these factors may now threaten George W. Two for sure, probably three and maybe four.

Inept peace terms and arrangements undid Wilson after World War I, Roosevelt’s Democrats after World War II, Nixon after Vietnam and George Bush after the 1991 Gulf War. Wilson’s naivete at the Versailles peace talks in 1919 made him look like a fool once the French and British turned the whole affair into a cynical triumph of greed, recrimination and unworkable new national boundaries. FDR, sick for months before he died in early 1945, gave away too much to the Russians at Yalta, and public opinion soured over the next few years when much of Eastern Europe fell to the Communists.

More recently, the Indochinese peace terms negotiated in late 1972, which Nixon thought would maintain South Vietnam’s independence, didn’t, and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Nixon’s credibility fell even more quickly. In 1991, the first President Bush, after calling Hussein a second Adolf Hitler, wound up leaving him in power and losing public approval.

“Conquered” Iraq doesn’t look a lot more manageable in 2003. To begin with, Hussein may have escaped a second time. The U.S. military has gotten off to a poor start managing the country, in part because Iraq remains more an artificial creation than a cohesive nation. Half its population has more in common with Iran, and may yet tilt in that direction. Another quarter would like to create an independent Kurdistan, which would destabilize the whole region. Six or eight months of incompetent U.S. administration could wear out the limited Iraqi welcome that existed when the fighting stopped.

Phony White House promises and descriptions of the wartime stakes could also come home to roost. By 1920, two years after World War I, Americans were sneering at Wilson’s rhetoric about “a war to end all wars” and “a war to make the world safe for democracy.” FDR’s World War II talk about continuing to join hands with our Russian allies after the conflict sounded like a joke by 1947. And Nixon’s insistence during Christmas 1972 that he had negotiated “peace with honor” in Vietnam looked like a joke almost immediately. Bush has half a dozen cliches of his own on the line for 2004.

Poll after poll has shown that Bush convinced voters that we fought Hussein to take away his weapons of mass destruction and because he was connected to the Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Most experts knew that the second reason was bogus, and a minority said that whatever weapons of mass destruction the Iraqi leader might have, they probably didn’t constitute much of a threat. If getting involved militarily in Iraq starts to look like it was a misjudgment, people will start to remember what they were told and how much of an exaggeration it was.

Another tricky part of war’s aftermath is that the forces unleashed tend to weaken old alignments and communities of interest, and create new ones. World War I produced chaos in four scuttled empires -- German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Turkish -- and turned Russian czarist allies of Britain, the United States and France into communist foes. Within two years of World War II, our Soviet allies were foes and our German enemies were becoming democratized allies.

In 2003, the United States has soured a lot of allies -- France, Germany, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- while enlisting the support of a coterie of second- and third-string states in Eastern Europe. Strained ties with such countries as Turkey and Saudi Arabia could make the Middle East more unstable.

Although terrorism was not a decisive postwar problem in the 20th century, it may be during the next few years. If the attack on Iraq turns out to have fed Islamic frustration and heightened the terrorist risk -- last week’s attacks on Westerners’ residential compounds in Saudi Arabia may or may not be an indicator -- then Bush’s policy will have failed a critical test: improving, rather than lessening, Americans’ personal security.

If terrorism withers, Bush will be insulated from criticism that his policy destabilized the Middle East. But if terrorism escalates, critics are likely to repeat what Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said as U.S. missiles and bombs were falling on Iraq: that instead of just one Osama bin Laden, the U.S. was creating 100 more.

Still another postwar factor that could matter again in 2004 involves public frustration with a war-related scandal. This may seem unlikely, but there have been several examples. The most obvious was Watergate, which grew out of Vietnam-era tensions and surveillance practices. After World War I, Americans started to get angry when they heard that bankers and munitions makers had played a role in bringing about the war.

Similarly, after the 1991 Gulf War, the “Iraqgate” scandal became a problem for the elder George Bush. It included embarrassing details and harsh Democratic rhetoric about how, from 1984 to 1989, Bush, as vice president and then as president, was secretly helping provide arms to Iraq, the country that he decided in 1990 was run by a second Hitler and that he wanted to attack.

The current President Bush could have similar difficulty in 2004. If we don’t find any significant weapons of mass destruction, then the 43rd president was either mistaken or cynically manipulating voters to support war. But if we do -- anthrax, nuclear rods or whatever -- critics will want them checked to make sure they weren’t made from parts or processes provided 15 years ago. Iraq is not a country in which the Bush dynasty has clean hands.

American presidents are unusually vulnerable to postwar second-thinking because they have to wait for the regular election cycle to come around -- in this case, 2004. In a parliamentary system, prime ministers can call an immediate election to tap war enthusiasm.

Maybe that’s why presidential political advisor Karl Rove is talking about Iraq as only one “battle” in a large war and calling for the 2004 Republican National Convention to convene in September near the anniversary of 9/11. On the other hand, if disenchantment is setting in, too much election-autumn red-white-and-blue opportunism might backfire.