Monday, December 01, 2014

An open letter to President George W. Bush

Originally published in Reader Weekly
December 4, 2003

Note: most of the links are no longer available.

Dear President Bush:

You have said dozens of times that you will “do whatever it takes” to win the war on terrorism, the latest being when you signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2004 on November 24, 2003. (1)  At that time you said, “We will do whatever it takes to keep our nation strong, to keep the peace, and to keep the American people secure.”

I submit that you are not doing everything it takes to do all that you promised.  Here are some ideas of what it takes to leave Iraq satisfactorily and continue the “war on terrorism.”

First, accelerate training in Arabic.  I have read that the Army is short of Arabic translators (2)(3) and I have read how effective good translators are (see Stars and Stripes among others).  I have also seen it reported that troops have killed unarmed people because they could not speak Arabic and had no translator.  However, nowhere in your speech or in the Defense Authorization Act do the words Arabic or language appear.

You should not only accelerate training for more Arabic translators, but you should provide training for all Iraq-based troops to learn as much Arabic as they wish.  This latter could be with CDs, small-classes, or just a mass distribution of phrase books.  I know from personal experience that speaking the local language even a little bit builds better relations.

Second, you should start reading newspapers and magazines and stop depending on your staff to filter the news for you.  The best you can depend on your staff to do is to tell you what they think you want to hear, not what you need to know.  I recommend that you read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Spectator, The Progressive Magazine, Stars and Stripes, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, The Daily Star of Lebanon, and Dawn of Pakistan, especially the editorials in all of these.  They should give you a very wide range of opinions to provide you a much better basis for your decisions.  Among recent articles I highly recommend is “Tour of Duty” in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly; it includes accounts of now-Sen. John Kerry’s experiences as a Navy officer on river duty in Viet Nam.  It will give you some insight in the disconnect between what is happening on the battlefield and what is happening in the Pentagon.  Read some books on recent Iraq history – an example is Sandra Mackey’s The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein.  Iraq is a very complex country with a long history of domination by outsiders.  One cannot make judgments about Iraq without understanding these complexities.

Third, have a long private talk with General John Abizaid, no advisors present, just you and him.  Let him tell you what he thinks needs to be done to get Iraqis governing themselves peacefully.  Not only does General Abizaid speak Arabic, but he has lived and studied in the Middle East.  He also has made a specialty of unconventional warfare using semi-independent units rather than big coordinated units.  This style is much better for fighting small-scale insurgencies such as occur in Iraq on a daily basis.

Fourth, have a long private talk with Senator John Kerry.  Again no advisors.  He should be able to give you a good understanding about what really happens in war.  He understands that what headquarters thinks is happening or wants to happen is not always what is really happening or should happen.

Sixth, rename the “War on Terror”.  The struggle against terrorism really is more a police investigation on a massive scale.  Are you going to bomb Germany, France, Turkey, England, and Canada because they are “harboring” terrorists?  Bombs did not arrest those who were found in these countries, police did. On the other hand bombs dropped on civilians are a good recruiting tool for any resistance.

Finally, don’t worry about re-election.  Which would you rather do - pass your successor in 2005 a plan that is bringing about your goals or pass your successor in 2009 a mess that is spiraling out of control?  Short-term actions that may please a large number of voters may work against long-term interests that would “keep our nation strong, … keep the peace, and … keep the American people secure.”  If you are going to do whatever it takes, do the right thing.

(1) Signing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2004, November 24, 2003,

(2) "Expert: Lack of Arabic hurts U.S. in Iraq", Washington Times, July 25, 2003,

(3) "U.S. 'desperately in need' of Arabic speakers to hold Iraq", World, July 9, 2003, article no longer available online

P.S. May 26, 2007, one of my sources for this article was "Iraq Today, The Independent Voice of Iraq".  I can find no direct reference to it.  The URL cannot be found.  The editor, Hassan Fattah, left Iraq in March or April 2004 when his situation became too dangerous.  See "Goodbye, Baghdad", by Hassan Fattah, published in the July/August 2004 Columbia Journalism Review.  This article is not available directly from CJR.

©2003, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree