April 9 — A Day for Iraqis and a Day for Bush

The date is now historic for the people of Iraq, and possibly for the Middle East generally, especially if freedom and democracy take root and spread elsewhere in the region — a big “if” that only time will tell.

We should not be overly euphoric. Fighting did not cease in Iraq on that day, no more than it did on July 4, 1776, or July 14, 1789, in respectively, the early United States of America or revolutionary France. America had to wait several painful years. France endured several terrible decades.

Much remains unclear. We don’t know if Saddam has yet fulfilled his chilling prophecy of decades ago: “I expect to die a violent death with nothing but the tip of my pinkie finger remaining behind.”

Still, April 9, 2003 may be commemorated in Iraq for generations. That is good news not only for Iraqis but also President George W. Bush.

In a same-day article in response to the jubilation in Firdos Square in central Baghdad, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, a talented Bush watcher, wrote: “it’s George W. Bush, in a sense, who toppled that statue.”

Fineman’s tone is understandable. He is an objective journalist who wants to avoid effusive praise. Still, he is understating Bush’s role. The former Texas governor toppled that Stalin-like statue — which, like the Berlin Wall, stood as a monument to human repression — in more than just “a sense.”

When it comes to the April 9 liberation, Bush was not just correct but extraordinarily so. He pursued a bold course in the face of vitriolic protests all around. It was a remarkable achievement, vindicated by countless images of Iraqis chanting his name and kissing his picture.

How, precisely, was he correct? In a critical way that needs to be appreciated:

By mid-March 2003, there were basically two approaches for attempting to disarm Iraq. One maintained that negotiations and diplomacy and further U.N. weapons inspections were the key to disarming Saddam and his regime. This approach would have aimed to “contain” Saddam by leaving sanctions in place, which, according to the United Nations (UNICEF), were monthly killing 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5.

We can argue about whether this approach would have disarmed Iraq. The Bush administration believed it would not. Those who favored it included Jacques Chirac’s French government, the German government of Gerhard Schroder, Vladimir Putin’s Russian administration, Kofi Annan, Hans Blix, China, and others. This included the majority of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, not to mention many of the president’s domestic political opponents, including some vocal Democratic presidential candidates.

But here’s the crucial point: This approach — call it the French approach — would have permitted Saddam to remain in power. That’s not an estimate. It is a fact. None of those favoring that approach would dispute it. That means that the liberation of Iraq — i.e., that April 9 moment marked by all those ecstatic people cheering in Baghdad, Irbil, Sulaimaniyah, and even Dearborn, Michigan — would not have happened.

The second option was the Bush approach. It maintained that the only way to truly disarm Saddam and his regime was to depose them. The Bush approach sought removal, which equaled liberation. Real disarmament, said the American president, would only occur with Saddam’s elimination. It would only transpire through a U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq.

That invasion has been underway for three weeks. On April 9, coalition troops liberated Baghdad, and thus, essentially, Iraq. (Though, again, the fighting isn’t over.)

In sum, the Bush approach liberated the Iraqi people. No question. The French approach did not and could not; such was not its goal. One can criticize Bush elsewhere, but he was right on this one. And it was a big one. This is one of the biggest, clearest victories for a president in quite some time.

To be sure, this war is about more than liberation. Bush’s core objectives focused on Saddam as a threat in the war on terror and as a madman seeking weapons of mass destruction. My focus here, however, is the April 9 liberation. On that, Bush deserves enormous credit. He shares it with the indispensable partnership of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spain’s gutsy leader Jose Maria Aznar, and other coalition members. But Bush was the front man. The vast majority of troops were American. He orchestrated this operation. It is his.

George W. Bush will stumble. He will have ups and downs. Ultimately, he could even lose reelection, just as his father did after a huge victory against Saddam. For now, however, he has earned a tremendous vindication. We should not be stingy in granting it. The Iraqis certainly aren’t.