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Friday, October 24, 2003

Break On Through?

Was I wrong about Donald Rumsfeld? I don’t know, but this memo is the first thing I’ve seen that suggests that perhaps something has changed. If Rumsfeld really means what he says here, maybe a corner has been turned. Where I have seen mainly hubris, ignorance, and arrogance emanating from our government, perhaps now there is the beginning of a new insight.

The U.S. has up until now seemingly operated under the assumption was that there was some finite (if unknown) number of terrorists in the world, and that America’s job was to find them, kill or arrest all or at least most them, and thereby “win” the War on Terror. Perhaps this memo and the public statements that follow it are a sign of, if not an immediate policy shift, then at least a new way of thinking about how best to combat terrorism that may pay off in the long run.

Perhaps the government will now act with an eye towards the Islamic world that will make the recruiting jobs for the terrorist cells harder rather than easier. In terms of instant gratification, it’s less rewarding than pre-emptive war, but America will have to forgo instant gratification if it wants real security.

This flawed thinking is where the conservative “flypaper” theory came from, though it’s likely more a post-hoc justification for the Iraq invasion than anything else. Bring all the terrorists to Iraq so they don’t attack America, or Israel, or Afghanistan for that matter., went the thinking. Those of us who knew better objected, and were more or less ignored.

The result of this thinking, assuming that a War in Iraq was in fact intended to be a part of the War on Terror, has created the possibility of terrorist threats emanating from a country where there had been no such threats previously. There was no Saddam-al Qaida connection. There was no Saddam-9/11 connection. Militant Islamist groups had very little power, and very little in terms of ability to operate in Iraq before the invasion, and that’s not as true now. (Note that it has long been an objective of Osama bin Laden and his supporters to rid the Middle East of Saddam Hussein and everyone like him.)

It is now becoming clear that if things continue in the direction in which they are heading, the costs of this war, in lives, in blood, in money, and in resources, will end up exceeding any good that might come from the removal of Saddam Hussein. The one thing that could have justified this war, done in this fashion and at this time, was a grave and imminent threat to national security. Iraq as it was before the war posed no such threat.

As tempting as it might be to say that the nation was misled and that it’s time to cut our losses in Iraq, to withdraw and leave a power vacuum could make the situation even worse. To a large degree, “you broke it, you bought it” applies.

And the American public has to look itself in the mirror here.

Too easily was our patriotism manipulated into blind faith in a wrongheaded policy that will cost us dearly. Too easily was our desire to unite behind our leadership after national tragedy manipulated into blind support for an attack that helped rather than hindered the causes of religious fanaticism and international terrorism. Too easily was our anger directed to sell us a dubious plan for remaking a region through brute force.

We were told this war would be quick and easy and cheap. But we should have known better, and we did not.

We were told Iraq would welcome us as liberators and not resist our occupation in any meaningful way. But we should have known better, and we did not.

We were told that removing Saddam Hussein would remove a massive obstacle to resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict. But we should have known better, and we did not.

We were under the impression that there was a strong nexus between the Hussein regime in Iraq and the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, and the government did everything short of lying about the link to create the impression that there was a link. But we should have known better, and we did not.

So, the question remains: how to mitigate the damage – to our credibility as a positive force in international affairs as well as to our treasury.

The “loan” idea floated by the Congressional Democrats isn’t really the answer, and I don’t even think they believe it’s the answer. Iraq, assuming they ever get a government with the capacity to accept multi-billion dollar loans, will not be in any kind of shape to pay back those sorts of loans anytime soon. I think the “loan” proposal was two things : a form of protest at the administration’s “my way or the highway” approach to this and numerous other issues, and an attempt to create a system by which the administration might be held more accountable for at least some of the money it wants to use in Iraq. Though on its face a poor proposition, I can’t blame the Democrats for proposing it, for handing this profligate administration another blank check would be imprudent. (Is there any indication that this $87 billion will be the absolute end of the financial commitment?)

I suspect that few, if anyone, really want to deny American troops in Iraq what they need to continue their work there. The parameters of the debate, as arbitrarily set by the administration and their allies on Capitol Hill, dictated the approach of the opposition.

Internationalizing the reconstruction effort would be critical to helping turn things around. Our military is, for all its strength, not built for situations such as the one it now faces in Iraq, especially given the simultaneous precarious situation in Afghanistan. One obstacle that stands between a truly international effort to pick up the pieces in Iraq is this administration’s continued desire to hold onto the reins of power, to install their preferred regime in the country. The American people have made it as clear as they could that we aren’t interested in throwing down an indefinite sum of money, much of it at the well-connected at Halliburton and Bechtel, just so George Bush can hand-pick the new leaders of Iraq from a set of friendly exiles.

Iraq must be able to decide its own fate, even if that fate is a regime less than friendly to the United States and Israel. Many American fears are largely unfounded. A Taliban-style theocracy is not a realistic possibility in a nation as advanced and developed as Iraq. A Shi’a theocracy like the one in Iran is not workable in a population almost evenly divided between Sunni and Shi’a. Even a ruler inclined to be a militaristic dictator would have to build an apparatus of oppression from scratch, and under the watchful eye of the rest of the world. It will almost certainly be better than Saddam in any event, and may indeed be better for the Iraqis, the Americans, and the world, than an attempt to install a government made up largely of exiles dependent on military and financial aid from Washington.

It says something, I think, that of all the nations of the Islamic Middle East, many of which the United States has been deeply involved with, the lowest level of anti-American sentiment among the people is probably in Iran. Iran is the one nation, more than any other in the region, that the United States has been least involved with in recent history. The United States has had essentially nothing to do with the innumerable shortcomings of the Iranian government. Compare the situation there with all the dysfunctional governments the United States has helped prop up or aid across the region, whose populations are full of people eager to denounce America in the strongest possible terms, with a few of them willing to give their lives to kill some infidels.

There might be a lesson there.


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