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Bush's Wars, by Terry Anderson

How has America fared in its forays into the 'Graveyard of Empires' (Afghanistan) and the 'Improbable Country' (Iraq)?

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Anderson also ably documents the litany of mistakes that contributed to the chaos that erupted in Iraq after the successful March 2003 invasion. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld insisted on an invasion force of only 145,000 men, enough to rout Saddam’s dispirited forces but not nearly enough to secure peace and security in a fractious country larger than California. The first sign that America couldn’t control the nation it had defeated militarily was the widespread looting that erupted soon after the fall of Baghdad. Anderson writes that American officials estimated the thievery amounted to $12 billion. Insurgency and civil war soon followed, fueled by weapons freely available at Iraqi military bases that were left unguarded for lack of American manpower.

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If more successful in Afghanistan, at least initially, the Bush administration also conducted that war on the cheap and America would eventually pay the price for it. In December 2001, the month the Taliban were defeated, Osama bin Laden slipped away into Pakistan when Gen. Tommy Franks assigned Afghan militia, rather than US Marines and Special Forces, the task of surrounding him in his Tora Bora redoubt.

Remarkably, the Taliban were defeated in 78 days with only a few hundred American boots on the ground – and a lot of air support for our Afghan allies. But by the end of 2001, with the Taliban routed, there were fewer than 5,000 American troops on hand initially to secure a country the size of Texas. Meanwhile, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Rumsfeld had already turned their gaze toward Iraq. Indeed, Iraq had come up in discussions of military responses as early as the afternoon of 9/11.

Anderson also reminds the reader that throughout his two terms Bush called for no sacrifices by the American people – other than those made by the military and their families – as he waged two wars. He urged his fellow Americans to go shopping and refused to raise taxes to pay for the wars. When Bush entered office, the national debt stood at $5.5 trillion, and there was a budget surplus. When he left, the national debt had doubled to $11 trillion.

The timing of this book is perhaps fortuitous. Even as President Obama announced last month the gradual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, “Bush’s Wars” serves the useful purpose of reminding all of us of a difficult truth: Once engaged, there is no easy exit from warfare.

David Holahan is a Monitor contributor.

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Note: This next-to-last paragraph of this review originally confused the national debt with the deficit.

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