"Events are in the saddle," Napoleon once said as his armies swung into action, and so too are they this week. Gulf War Two has begun, and an unfamiliar stallion -- one most of us have rarely seen in our lifetimes -- is galloping toward an uncertain future.
"Operation Iraqi Freedom" has been launched, and, hawk and dove alike, Americans everywhere find themselves praying for the success and safety of our troops, the quarter of a million mostly young Americans whom President Bush and Congress have committed to battle in a faraway land.
But there are a few bad omens. The Bush administration embarked upon this new war against significant opposition inside the U.N. Security Council, in cities around the globe, and on the streets of America as well. The onset of war has done little to temper that opposition. Indeed, the past week's hostilities have further inflamed anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world, raising serious concerns for the long-term stability of pro-U.S.A. governments in the Middle East region. Meanwhile, the emerging shape of our march toward Baghdad -- with sandstorms and surprisingly stiff resistance offered by Iraqi "irregulars" -- makes us all a bit uneasy about what will happen next.
"Necessary as it may have been," wrote two New York Times reporters Monday about the fierce combat around Nasiriya, "today's battle was hardly the sort of warfare that American commanders had envisioned to persuade the Iraqi population of America's good intentions. For American commanders, winning the war means destroying the Baghdad government, but it also includes a concerted effort to avoid the kind of urban fighting that might enrage the Iraqi people."
Perceptual problems are nothing new for the Bush administration. For months, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. clung to their own unique view of Iraqi political reality. They demanded Saddam Hussein's removal from power by immediate military action -- a course not urged by most U.N. Security Council colleagues, nor by the U.N. weapons inspectors charged with determining whether indeed Saddam had WMDs. Faced with staunch U.N. opposition, President Bush chose simply to ignore it, making his government's perception of Iraqi reality, in the process, a geopolitical fact of life. How real is it now? As real as body bags and POWs.
Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot. What counts now, whether President Bush realizes it or not, are not his views and opinions but the perceptions of the Iraqi people. The American government can offer aid; it can promise democracy; it can talk whatever game it likes. But Operation Iraqi Freedom could become inoperative if the Iraqi people think otherwise, if the five million citizens of Baghdad perceive our troops as foreign invaders rather than heroic liberators. If even a small percentage of Iraqis decide we are the former, this war could turn out very badly.
Time will tell. Events are indeed in the saddle. Only this time, when the fighting stops, the people of Iraq -- not George W. Bush -- will be the ones getting back on the horse.