Regime change was one of the stated goals of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Unlike cleansing the place of weapons of mass destruction and breaking up the alleged Baghdad-Al Qaeda nexus, it was a reality-based goal; and, unlike the other two (which were as unattainable and unnecessary as ridding the moon of green cheese), it was actually accomplished.
Saddam Hussein’s regime has indeed been changed—though what it has been changed into, of course, is not quite what was intended.
And regime change, it turns out, is infectious—a militarily transmittable disease, almost invariably fatal, so far, to any political party or head of government so careless of hygiene as to have had intimate relations with the Bush Administration’s Mesopotamian misadventure.
The contagion set in less than a year into the war, when, three days after the Madrid terrorist bombings of March 11, 2004, Spain’s conservative government, which had sent thirteen hundred soldiers to Iraq, was defeated at the polls.
The soldiers were out within three months. In May of 2005, it was the turn of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, of Italy, President Bush’s loudest West European supporter, who had sent three thousand troops; his successor, Romano Prodi, brought them home.
In June of this year, Tony Blair was finally obliged to relinquish his grip on Britain’s Labour government, largely because of Iraq; the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has signalled that he intends to withdraw Britain’s troops—some five thousand of the original commitment of forty-five thousand remain—by the end of 2008.
Six weeks ago, Poland’s premier, the twin brother of the country’s President, lost to an opponent whose platform included bringing back the nine hundred Polish troops that are still in Iraq.
Other countries whose voters have dispensed with the services of leaders who enrolled them in Bush’s “coalition of the willing” include Hungary, Ukraine, Norway, and Slovakia.
A week ago last Saturday, John Howard, the second-longest-serving Prime Minister of Australia, became the newest casualty of this political epidemic. Howard’s case is unusual, both for the slavishness with which he has followed Bush’s lead and for the comprehensiveness of his defeat. After a decade in office, and at a time of widespread economic contentment, his center-right coalition was decisively ousted at every level of government. He even lost his parliamentary seat. His fealty to Bush, not only on Iraq but also, and at least as important, on climate change, was, of course, not the only factor. But it colored everything.
Two episodes helped solidify the public’s fed-upness. As close observers of our own election campaign may recall, the Australian Prime Minister greeted Barack Obama’s entry into the Presidential race—and his proposal, at about the same time, for an American withdrawal from Iraq by next March—with a sneer.
“If I was running Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Howard said, “I would put a circle around March, 2008, and pray as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats.” Kevin Rudd, then the leader of Australia’s opposition, now Prime Minister-elect, gave him hell for this.
But the crispest rebuke came from Obama himself, who, after calling the attack flattering, said, “I would also note that we have close to a hundred and forty thousand troops on the ground now, and my understanding is that Mr. Howard has deployed fourteen hundred. So if he’s ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he call up another twenty thousand Australians and send them to Iraq. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”
This point, which an Australian politician might find it awkward to make, exposed the gap between Howard’s talk of the civilizational imperative of victory in Iraq and the relative paltriness of his commitment to that victory. Australian troops have suffered zero combat deaths in Iraq to date. Rudd plans to get them out before any occur. He also plans to sign the Kyoto climate-change protocol in Bali this week, leaving the United States isolated as the only major Western country to reject it.
Then, in early September, Bush decided to drop in on the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group to give his old mate an electoral boost. The event, which officially described itself as “the most significant international gathering of an economic kind that Australia has hosted,” was supposed to be the zenith of Howard’s premiership. It turned out to be the nadir. He was humiliated when Kevin Rudd chatted with the President of China in perfect Mandarin. He was humiliated when a popular TV satire troupe called the Chaser mounted a fake motorcade, flying a Canadian flag and featuring a rented limo with an actor dressed as Osama bin Laden in the back seat, and got within ten yards of Bush’s hotel, making a mockery of an elaborate, war-on-terror-inspired security lockdown that had encased downtown Sydney in a “ring of steel.” Bush, for his part, made a fool of himself (and, by extension, of his host) by calling APEC “OPEC” and Australian troops “Austrian troops.” The Bush boost was a Bush bust.
They don’t much like our President in the land Down Under. In the most recent poll by Australia’s Lowy Institute, huge majorities disapproved of American foreign policy in general (sixty-three per cent) and of George W. Bush in particular (sixty-nine per cent). But similar majorities take a positive view of America (sixty per cent) and Americans (seventy-six per cent). The rest of the world, alas, is not so discriminating. According to Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes’s “America Against the World” (2006), based on the Pew Global Attitudes Project, there was a time, not so long ago, when foreigners “found it easy to say their problem with America was really President Bush, not a considered judgment of the American people.
But the results of the 2004 U.S. presidential election made that rationalization untenable.” An avalanche of new international polls—from Pew, the German Marshall Fund, the BBC, and others—show that anti-Americanism has reached astronomical levels almost everywhere and has solidified even in the Northern European belt from Britain to Poland. “Countries that would once have supported American foreign policy on principle, simply out of solidarity or friendship, will now have to be cajoled, or paid, to join us,” Anne Applebaum, a conservative commentator not given to sentimentality about “world opinion,” wrote recently in the Washington Post. “Count that—along with the lives of soldiers and civilians, the dollars and equipment—as another cost of the war.”
Last week’s gathering of Israeli and (Sunni) Arab leaders at Annapolis was a sign that it has finally dawned on the Bush Administration that its six-year policy of ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian morass has aggravated America’s troubles in the Middle East. The President may at last have realized that while the issue is not the sole cause of Islamist extremism, it cannot continue to fester––for the sake not only of Israeli survival and justice for the Palestinians but also of beginning to restore some of the global influence and esteem this Administration has squandered. But in suddenly capping six years of obtuse neglect with a one-year timeline, President Bush has probably dithered too long to have any hope of solving the world’s most complicated and persistent rebus. His late awakening is yet another cost of the Iraq war. Those costs keep mounting, and they’re not likely to abate until there’s regime change a little closer to home.