Columnists > Voices

Too easy, too early

Would the war in Iraq actually be more popular now if it had not gone so well at the beginning?

Issue: "Isabel's slow march," Sept. 27, 2003

OF ALL THE DECEPTIONS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is guilty of in its conduct of the war in Iraq, the most unforgivable is this: They misled us by making it seem too easy, too early.

That's a strategic mistake in any contest. The Atlanta Braves do it year after year, salting away one division championship after another but then collapsing in their final pursuit of the World Series. If they hadn't built such an enormous lead through the summer this year, their weak September would have cost them even their habitual division crown. So Braves fans got edgy.

But baseball, much as we need an autumnal distraction from Iraq, is only an illustration. The point is that when people think you're going to win on the cheap, they tend to get very angry when you have to remind them later on that victory is actually going to cost you some blood, sweat, and tears.

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That's why the uproar was so loud this month after President Bush said the war over the next 12 months is likely to cost another $87 billion. People get spoiled. They thought they had already secured victory at the bargain counter, and they resented the realities Mr. Bush was now spelling out for them.

From the beginning, of course, Mr. Bush had said this would be an expensive war. In his address to the nation two years ago, just a few days after the 9/11 attack, he was explicit that the cost in lives, dollars, and time would be high. And he has repeated that warning many times since.

Admittedly, both Mr. Bush and his administration may sometimes have gotten a little too jubilant along the way. The "Mission Accomplished" banner stretched across the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was a blunder, drowning out the actual words Mr. Bush spoke that day about how much longer the contest would take and how much more it would cost. If people tuned out that message and tended then to think most of the bill had been paid, the president and his team bear some part of that blame.

But ironically, the biggest thing of all that has gone wrong since last winter was that the easy battle for Baghdad prompted us all to think that the war was won. We thought that the peace had been secured, and that all this had happened easily and relatively pain free. If 500, or 1,000, or even 5,000 Americans had died in those initial assaults, no one would have been surprised. Indeed, given Saddam's reputation, it's what many expected.

The easy answer is to say that Mr. Bush, Mr. Rumsfeld, and their teams of experts should have been ready for such an outcome, but weren't. A massive army melted away overnight-almost without resistance-and became a thousand individual snipers. It wasn't, to be sure, what had been expected. So the whole event became red meat for Mr. Bush's political opponents and for the media.

And what could be redder meat than a big figure like $87 billion? The price tag became an overnight plaything. Perhaps no one had more fun with it than Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who had to know he was tempting the public with his hypocrisy when he complained that Congress was being treated like an ATM machine. And others too who have never gagged at any huge expenditure now became fiscal disciplinarians.

How much is $87 billion? Almost certainly, a figure too big for most of us to imagine. But at the same time, it's just $300 for every American. It is just 1/17th of what the federal government was already planning to spend this year. In that sense, it's as if your family budget were $50,000 this year, and you suddenly faced an emergency that was going to add another $3,000 to that $50,000. It will take some penny-pinching, but you can do it.

Alarmists want you to think this is an impossible amount. They suggest that such an expenditure might well stomp an already fragile economy into the dirt. These are the same folks, of course, who don't mind adding an amount like this to federal spending if it's for prescription drugs, or farm subsidies, or untested educational programs, or make-work plans for college students.

But just propose $87 billion this year to stop tyrants and terrorists in the Middle East, and you'd best watch out. "This was supposed to be easy," critics say. "This was supposed to be cheap. It's all your fault, Mr. Bush, for making things look so simple up front. We thought freedom and democracy in the Middle East were for sale at the bargain counter. If we have to go upstairs and pay full price, maybe we'll have to think again."

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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