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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 17, 2009

Obama follows Bush's playbook on Iraq


By Victor Davis Hanson

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Soldiers listen as Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks in Kirkuk, Iraq. As the public's attention turns to Afghanistan, it's been easy to overlook the successes of "George Bush's war."

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO | December 2009

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We don't hear all that much about Iraq these days, do we?

The war at one point almost tore apart this country. Public anger sent George W. Bush's approval ratings plummeting. And the outrage over our losses helped elect vocal anti-Iraq-war candidate Barack Obama.

But Iraq is hardly in the news anymore. That seems odd, given there are still 120,000 American troops stationed there.

So, why the silence?

In short, Americans are not dying in Iraq as they were from 2006 to 2008. Twice as many Americans have died in Afghanistan this year as in Iraq. As of this writing, in December, there have been four coalition fatalities.

Perceptions of the war in Iraq have also changed in unforeseen ways.

"No blood for oil," for example, was once a common anti-war cry. But Iraq's auctioning of its oil leases has gone mostly to Europeans, Russians and Chinese not Americans.

The U.S., it turned out, did not go to Iraq to steal its natural resources. Apparently, we instead ensured a fair auction by a constitutional government that preferred non-American companies to pump its oil. In the end, we were more idealistic or naive than conspiratorial.

Then there is Iran, which, many argued, was supposed to be have been empowered after we removed its nemesis Saddam Hussein. And, indeed, it sure looked that way when Iranian agents were stirring up violence in Iraq.

Yet this year, a million Iranians went out in the streets to demand free and fair elections of the sort they hear constantly about across their border. In other words, perhaps the democratic experiment in Iraq where Shiite Muslims enjoy freedom will prove destabilizing in the long term to the Iranian theocracy.

Here at home, the portrayal of the two wars we're engaged in is just as topsy-turvy. When fewer than 100 Americans were dying each year in Afghanistan, and the Taliban were in hiding, the Afghan conflict was proclaimed a necessary, good war in contrast to the optional, costly and apparently failed effort in Iraq.

But in 2009, George Bush's bad war quieted down. And the good war in Afghanistan, now overseen by Obama, heated up.

The politics flipped as well.

Once upon a time, presidential candidate Obama argued that combat troops should leave Iraq by March 2008, and more soldiers sent to Afghanistan. That seemed popular at the time, since most then thought Iraq was hopeless.

But under the present reversed conditions, President Obama apparently has followed the Bush-Petraeus plan of incremental withdrawal from Iraq. And, with Afghanistan, he waited months before granting the requests of his generals for more troops while insisting on a deadline to start bringing them back home.

As a result, the leftwing loyalists who helped elect Obama on his anti-war credentials are now furious at the Nobel Peace Laureate for sending any additional troops to Afghanistan. And his biggest supporters, ironically, are his usual right-wing opponents, who now applaud him for listening to his generals.

The media coverage of Afghanistan and Iraq has been just as schizophrenic. So far, the rising violence in Afghanistan is not quite front-page news as Iraq once was. Most in the media seem reluctant to tar Obama with a messy quagmire at least not yet in the way the reporting from Iraq helped bring down George Bush.

What are we to make of all these flip-flops?

Iraq was never lost and Afghanistan was never quite the easy good war. Those in the media too often pile on and follow the polls rather than offer independent analysis. Campaign rhetoric and politics are one thing the responsibility of governance is quite another.

And when wars break out, no one ever quite knows how things will finally end up.