William Finnegan: Marches and Parades,  The New Yorker, May 12, 2003

The sight of President Bush taking his extraordinary victory lap earlier this month aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln made it more difficult to argue with those (a planet-wide majority, if we can believe the international polls) who accuse our leaders of arrogance. Flying in at the controls of a Navy jet, making a tail-hook landing, back-slapping sailors in the California sunshine while wearing a fighter-pilot flight suit, then announcing, against the blue Pacific, the end of major combat in Iraq—well, it had a certain swagger. And yet there are signs that the Bush Administration is genuinely concerned about not seeming triumphal over its victory in Iraq. In fact, we are told, there was no victory—only a liberation—and the Administration has been trying to get out the message that homecoming parades for the troops, including a big one here in New York, should somehow make that distinction clear. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and some of the military’s top brass have been spending “significant time talking about this and thinking it through,” according to Victoria Clarke, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon. They’re all hoping to avoid, as the Times put it, “parades that might appear to be gloating.”

Why this sudden sensitivity to appearances? To anyone even slightly familiar with the record of Saddam Hussein’s regime, a bit of gloating over its destruction doesn’t seem unreasonable. And this is, after all, the President who dismissed the demonstrations of February 15th—when ten million people, in six hundred cities across the globe, marched against the invasion of Iraq in what was probably the largest one-day protest in history—with the observation that he never listened to “focus groups.”

Still, the protesters had a greater effect on events than today’s conventional wisdom recalls. Domestic and foreign opposition pushed the Administration to go back to the United Nations, for instance, for one more round of weapons inspections, and perhaps to take added care in avoiding civilian casualties. The war, of course, went ahead. The more dire predictions of its opponents did not, thankfully, prove correct, and the relatively quick fall of Saddam Hussein seemed to mean, both logically and morally, the defeat of the antiwar movement.

Except that few of the war’s opponents, domestic or foreign, have become wholehearted supporters of the Administration or of its plans for Iraq’s future. And support matters. Even though Spain’s Prime Minister, for example, was one of the willing, the opposition of ninety per cent of his voting public meant that he was confined to contributing a hospital ship and humanitarian help, rather than combat troops, to the war effort. A private deal cut with Turkey’s top politicians fell apart on the parliament floor despite American inducements amounting to some twenty-six billion dollars, because the Turkish public wouldn’t abide it. If the United States learned anything in the tortuous months of politicking leading up to the war, it was that today it must win over not only the leaders of foreign countries but their citizens.

That may explain why the Administration’s rationales for invasion, which seemed to change constantly, from anthrax and Al Qaeda to supposed nuclear sales in Africa, all eventually acquired, whatever their merits, the hectoring sound of sales pitches being made to skeptical, even hostile crowds. This rhetorical escalation was driven, in part, by the pressure of sustained opposition, as was the Administration’s tendency to overstate its claims about Saddam Hussein’s capabilities and intentions.

The Administration seemed similarly compelled to exaggerate the short-term prospects for turning Iraq into a democratic, peaceful, modern capitalist state. Simply installing a few reliable exiles would probably never have worked, to judge from the nationalist and religious passions now roiling the country. Even so, after all that has been argued and promised, anything less than a sustained effort to restore order, keep the country together, and generally nation-build would expose the Administration to charges of wantonness and hypocrisy.

The war was won without Turkey, and despite the French. But, as the Administration’s attempt last week to craft a resolution on lifting sanctions that would be acceptable to the entire Security Council suggests, we’d rather not have to win the peace without them. One problem with the “v” word is that the victory, even on the Administration’s own terms, is incomplete. As President Bush said in his speech aboard the aircraft carrier, it wasn’t actually a war we just fought; it was a battle in a larger, longer war against global terrorism. Even the most myopic unilateralist must realize that to fight such a war we need allies. Without the help of Pakistan and Germany, just to take two obvious examples, we would be making little, if any, progress against Al Qaeda. American triumphalism over the war in Iraq plays very poorly in both of those countries.

At the same time, many Americans are deeply wary of the notion of an ongoing, or even permanent, war. (The Democrats dread this prospect for their own reasons, since they badly need to change the subject to the domestic economy if they are to gain any traction in the 2004 election campaigns.) According to a recent Times/CBS poll, a majority of Americans still oppose preemptive military strikes. The vast strWilliam Finneganeet protests we saw before the war were expressing, it should be remembered, the fears and concerns of many more Americans (tens of millions, apparently) than ever got out and marched.

This is not to say that Secretary Rumsfeld is living in fear of the peace movement. But the minuet being danced by the Bush Administration and its many antagonists over Iraq has been exceedingly intricate, and it is likely to become more so in the months ahead, when sharing the costs of reconstruction will become increasingly urgent and the Pentagon will seek to replace our soldiers with troops from countries where people remain strongly opposed to American policy. The peace marchers are quiet for now, in London and Berlin as well as in New York and Washington, but they’re still there.