Special to WorldTribune.com
The tenth anniversary this week of the opening salvos in the American “shock-and-awe” campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq reminds us of the “axis-of-evil” speech delivered by George W. Bush in his state-of-the-union address on Jan. 20, 2002, a year after he was inaugurated.
No one would dispute Bush’s charge that North Korea was “arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens.” Bush signaled a hard line on North Korea when he said that “states like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
The problem, though, was Bush’s claim that Iraq had “plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade.” Then came the revelation that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapons program.
I got to Iraq in June 2004 on the day the U.S. returned sovereignty to an “interim” Iraqi government. I heard the news on BBC as I was going from the Baghdad airport in an old Mercedes driven by an Iraqi whom I’d encountered outside the airport.
For the next three months this guy would be my driver-guide as we drove all over Baghdad in search of interviews for a cover story about “rebuilding” Iraq that I was doing for the magazine of high finance, Institutional Investor. He even drove me around when I was doing radio pieces for CBS, which had given me a room at its bureau in the Al Mansour Hotel. Occasionally I went in a CBS car, with armor plating under the floor, accompanied by a veteran British bodyguard, followed by a chase car, also with a bodyguard aboard.
I have two abiding impressions from that experience. The first is a lot of people whom I met, American and Iraqi, were incredibly serious about what they were doing. The economic experts in the U.S. establishment were full of elaborate plans, and Iraqi officials and experts at the central bank, in the finance ministry, in their homes and private offices, plied me with material.
My other impression was how incredibly dangerous it was. I don’t think I knew how dangerous. At the sound of explosions near my hotel, I rushed to the scene as if I were back in Saigon during the Vietnam War, when you were a whole lot safer.
Foolishly, in retrospect, I thought nothing of going down darkened streets in search of a guy who, after his guards ushered me through about three gates, gave me a tremendous briefing in his elaborate apartment. I had to enter the central bank by a back gate through a barbed-wire fence, guarded by a nervous guy with an AK-47. One guy whom I interviewed hefted an Uzi on his desk. Another had me picked up in his own armored car with two guards and a driver.
While I was there, Americans were captured in their homes and had their throats slit. Someone exploded an IED, improvised explosive device, a term that came into vogue long after Vietnam, inside the bank where I’d met a deputy director.
Helicopters spat machine gun fire and rockets down Haifa Street from the al Mansour. One day, a guy was shot dead in his car by a nervous GI. A mortar landed in the parking lot, and I called CBS from there. Another shell wouldn’t land in the same place, right?
The worst, though, came nearly two years later, in May 2006, long after I had returned to Seoul, when an IED exploded outside the U.S. army humvee that had carried CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier, cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan on a Memorial Day feature. Douglas, Brolan, a U.S. army captain and their translator were killed and Dozier was seriously wounded.
I’d known Douglas and Brolan quite well. Allan Pizzi, CBS TV correspondent in from Rome, had me doing stand-uppers on the Al Mansour roof for local CBS stations. Paul would say, relax, slow down, look into the camera. Then, on about the fifth take, he’d say, to my infinite relief, fine, Don, got it. I’ve rarely met such a great guy in this business.
In Vietnam, I often wondered why it was the nice guys who got killed. That’s how I felt when I heard about Douglas and Brolan. As for the wisdom of the war, the consensus among the chattering classes is the U.S. made a huge mistake and paid the price with the loss of 4,500 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis while failing to foster stability.
But what about Saddam — his chemical warfare against the Kurds, his cruelty toward his own people? For me, it was hard to reach final judgment then, and it’s just as hard today.