Is Saddam winning the war? 

Forget the foreplay. Here’s the bottom line: How long will the American people put up with having one or two of our soldiers shot in the back in Iraq every day?

That’s what the White House is thinking about. You better believe that’s what the president’s re-election campaign is worrying about. And deep within some cave or bunker or apartment complex, that’s what Saddam Hussein is thinking about too.

Their futures — and perhaps ours — depend on the answer.

Three months ago, George W. Bush looked to most people like George S. Patton. He was billed as a great liberator and a military genius. The Iraqi army had melted away. Casualties had been light; we had occupied Baghdad without much of a fight, and at the beginning of May, the president declared major combat operations over.

Unfortunately, then the war began.

Now, it looks like old Saddam may have been a lot smarter than we imagined. When we started this war, for some reason we expected a conventional series of battles, with fighting in the streets of Baghdad. Had that happened, the “war” would have lasted longer. Lots more people, ours and (mostly) theirs, would have been killed.

But we would have won. Not only do we have lots more fancy military hardware, our military is excellent at winning battles where both sides play by our rules.

What we aren’t very good at is winning guerrilla wars against a foreign enemy on their own territory. We seem also to be fairly slow learners. Thirty years ago, when we were negotiating the Paris peace accords, billed as giving us “peace with honor” in ending the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger supposedly remarked that whenever American forces fought a set-piece battle against the North Vietnamese, our troops had won.

To this, Le Duc Tho, his North Vietnamese counterpart, said something like “So?”

Which was exactly right. Both sides knew then, after years of suffering and false optimism, of imaginary lights at the end of the tunnel, of destroyed presidencies and 58,000 American dead, that what Washington was really bargaining for was, in the title of Frank Snepp’s book, a Decent Interval, before the North overran the South.

We might have learned from all that. But instead, here we are, a generation or more later, occupying a California-sized country that always has been hell on foreign invaders. We went in, it now seems clear, with carefully detailed plans for seizing and protecting the oil fields — but only the sketchiest ideas of how to run the place and get fresh water and food to our 24 million new dependents.

And now — surprise, surprise — we are targets of a guerrilla war. Less than a month ago, Donald Rumsfeld, our pompous, preppy bully of a defense secretary, denied what was happening was guerrilla warfare. Why it was just terrorists, or “common criminals.”

He’s since been contradicted by our latest commander of military forces there, Gen. John Abizaid, who last week flatly said it was a “classical guerrilla-type campaign,” and added that the enemy was becoming “better coordinated and more sophisticated.”

Naturally, he predicted final victory, but said the troops now there had better plan on staying a year. Wonder what he or his successor will be predicting in July 2004?

So what do we do?

The best and most intelligent solution might have been, once we’d ousted Saddam and were still in the happy afterglow of easy military success, to have turned the whole place over to the much-maligned United Nations.

Why, the blue helmets might have come in, got the water supply going, relieved us of the burden, and soon established a schedule for free elections. We could have gone home as heroes, and George W. Statesman would have looked better than ever.

However, that wasn’t on the macho agenda. What you may see happening now is likely to look very familiar to those of us with long memories and a little gray hair.

Watch for some sort of “search and destroy” operation designed to ferret out those few bad guys who aren’t ecstatic about having their nation run by outsiders. If this doesn’t go well, maybe those Iraqis who we think are loyal may be grouped in “strategic hamlets” to prevent their contamination by guerrilla elements.

Eventually, probably fairly soon, we’ll install a full-fledged puppet government. Washington’s preferred puppet, so far as I can tell, is a guy named Ahmed Chalabi, a London banker who hasn’t lived in the country for more than 40 years. He certainly ought to be a cinch to win the hearts and minds of the common people.

What happens after that?

Possibly the Iraqi peasants will all decide to become good citizens of a Western-type democracy, and dream of landing low-wage jobs with multinational firms headquartered in the United States. History suggests, however, that as time goes by, their top priority is far more likely to be ousting the invader and occupier.

And every day we stay there, that’s how more Iraqis will see us.

Which is what Saddam is counting on.

Nuclear follies: The otherwise tame media are now actually challenging Bush’s Iraq policy on the assertion, now clearly false, that Saddam was trying to get a nuclear weapon. Not only was that not true, they have now admitted they didn’t even have any new intelligence indicating that.

Which is a nice way of saying, the president just lied. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put a much better Alice-in-Wonderland spin on it in May. “Intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean something is true ... It doesn’t mean it’s a fact. I mean, that’s not what intelligence is,” Gen. Richard Myers said.

Roger. What is a fact is that the president’s men wanted this war, and if they thought claiming Saddam had killed Jon-Benet Ramsey would have rallied Americans to the cause, Bush would have said that too.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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