Iraq and Beyond: Navigating the Fog of War

National Journal

There is no shortage of second-guessing about the war in Iraq, and no shortage of causes for concern. While the conduct of our military ensures eventual victory and should make us proud, the hope of a relatively painless liberation, with grateful Iraqis dancing in the streets almost from day one, has proved too optimistic. The mangled bodies of women, children, other civilians, and combatants are piling up. News photos of horrifying mistakes are bringing hatred of America to unprecedented levels around the world. We may be losing the hearts and minds of Iraqis whose loved ones and neighbors become "collateral damage" and whose lives we have so far changed very much for the worse.

But in an important sense, the current second-guessing of the Bush-Rumsfeld war plan, and of President Bush’s fateful decision to invade without more international support, is beside the point. The United States today is like a big ship navigating a treacherous sea of icebergs in a dense fog. Bush and his people are at the controls. And for at least the next 21 months, all Americans-including those who consider Bush unfit to lead-must depend on whatever skill and luck he can muster. If he fails, we will all be in even direr peril.

There is good reason to debate what Bush should do next, and in particular to warn against the grandiose visions of empire entertained by some neoconservatives in and around the administration. But carping over whether Bush or Donald Rumsfeld should have steered this way instead of that way yesterday will not help them or us steer around icebergs today or tomorrow. Nor will reveling in the hatred that seems to spur some Bush media critics to attack a war plan that they would defend were this a Democratic administration, just as Clinton-hating conservatives trashed our last president’s humanitarian intervention in Kosovo.

Bush was not my choice for president. (I wrote in former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.) In my opinion, Bush’s fiscal policies are recklessly irresponsible; his tax cuts are bad medicine for the economy and too skewed to the rich; his other policies are often disappointing; his bull-in-a-china-shop disdain for diplomacy is incalculably costly, and may well have cost us a northern front through Turkey; his impatient and cocksure responses to reasonable critics seem petty; and his unscripted public comments and demeanor are often an embarrassment, especially by comparison with Tony Blair.

But like the hedgehog, Bush understands one big thing: In this terrifying new world-where rogue nations are bent on developing nuclear weapons and motivated to slip them covertly to Islamist terrorists devoted to mass-murdering Americans-our best chance of avoiding catastrophe is to stop Iraq, Iran, Libya, and others from going nuclear by any means necessary, including military attack. If the threat to attack is sufficiently credible, we may not need to do it again. And it will be credible only if we make an example of Saddam Hussein that shows other rogue regimes that if they seek nuclear weapons, they will meet the same fate. (This may not be feasible in the case of North Korea because it effectively holds hostage the millions of South Koreans within range of 11,000 of its artillery pieces and because it probably already has nuclear weapons.)

The cautious, reactive approach to incipient threats practiced by Bill Clinton, Bush’s father, and most of their predecessors might prove to be slow-motion suicide in today’s world, with the odds of unimaginable carnage in America rising exponentially as more and more rogue regimes go nuclear. And a preventive-war policy that would have seemed recklessly aggressive a decade ago may now be our only hope.

As to the administration’s much-criticized Iraq invasion plan, it’s quite possible (but hardly established) that Rumsfeld should have sent a more massive force. And it’s possible that unless Saddam’s regime suddenly snaps-as did the Taliban, despite much early pessimism about the progress of that war in Afghanistan-an unexpectedly bloody victory may leave us in greater peril than Saddam has ever posed. That would occur if this war leaves the American people with no stomach for a repeat performance and thus belies Bush’s threat to attack any other rogue regimes that seek nuclear weapons.

Does this mean that Rumsfeld was an arrogant fool for rushing into Iraq with a force too small to finish the job? Arrogant, yes. Fool, no. Rumsfeld had plausible reasons for proceeding as he did. The stunning speed of the initial push may well have prevented Saddam’s forces from torching the southern oil fields and firing missiles at Israel. Perhaps more important, the shock-and-awe, limited-force, low-cost victory for which the administration hoped would have sent just the right message to Iran, Libya, and others: This was easy. You can count on us doing the same to you if you seek to go nuclear.

Now it appears that the Iraqi resistance will be stiffer, the costs of this invasion higher, and the war longer than Rumsfeld had expected. But that does not make the "rolling-start" plan a failure-not yet, at least. Our troops are closing in on Baghdad. Reinforcements are on the way. Eventual victory is assured. No battles have been lost. Coalition casualties have been light. And it is unclear whether this war will be less successful than if Rumsfeld had waited-as the summer heat descended-to assemble twice as many troops.

Nor is it clear that the official talk of an easy, low-cost victory was designed to lull the American people into false confidence. Such optimistic forecasts were designed in part to persuade Iraqis not to fight for a doomed regime. That did not work. But it may have been worth a try. And while Vice President Cheney’s March 16 prediction that our troops would be widely "greeted as liberators" looks shaky now, it may yet be vindicated.

The bottom line is that we should spend less time second-guessing the administration’s past military strategy and more time pushing for Bush to make the right decisions in the weeks and months ahead. Some suggestions:

•To close the "credibility gap" that some in the media seem so eager to enlarge, Bush, Rumsfeld, and their commanders should drop the annoying and self-discrediting pretense that they are never taken by surprise, never unsuccessful, never in doubt, and never wrong. They should also meet constructive criticisms from current and retired military leaders and others with respectful attention and thoughtful rebuttal, not withering contempt.

• To salve the wounds that we have inadvertently inflicted on Iraqi civilians, Bush and Congress should promise generous compensation to the injured and to survivors of the dead, and create a process for making such payments as soon as possible.

• To show good faith to suffering Palestinians, Bush should make it clear that he is as serious as Tony Blair is about moving ahead with the "road map" for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; perhaps he should start by demanding an immediate halt to new Israeli settlement activity in return for an unambiguous commitment by the Palestinian Authority to do everything in its power to end terrorist attacks.

• To counter suspicions that his real motive is to seize Iraq’s oil, Bush should say more loudly and clearly that we will hold those assets in trust for the Iraqi people until we turn them over to the new government, and will take nothing to defray the costs of the invasion.

• To repair the damage to America’s international image and relations, Bush should invite the United Nations and the world community to share responsibility for reconstructing Iraq and reconstituting its government, while ruling out any use by France of its veto power.

• To show that his pre-emption doctrine is indeed about self-defense, not empire-building, Bush should vow that we will initiate military force against another nation only when necessary to prevent development of nuclear weapons that could threaten us or our allies, and only if the Security Council refuses to act. He should also offer nonaggression pacts to any and all nations that verifiably renounce nuclear arms, including North Korea.

Bush should, in short, reject the empire-building ambitions of some of his neoconservative subordinates and endorse the stirringly modest description of America’s goals that Colin L. Powell offered during a global youth forum on February 14.

Citing America’s treatment of the nations defeated in World War II, Powell said this: "What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems, which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No. The only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are."