Published on Wednesday, June 2, 2004 by the Boston Globe
Bush the War Leader Losing Key Battles
by Robert Kuttner
WHETHER YOU supported the US invasion of Iraq or opposed it, you have to be impressed by the Bush administration's sheer incompetence. That issue, and not the wisdom of the Iraq war itself, should be John Kerry's trump in his claim that he would run a more effective foreign policy. Indeed, it would be hard to run a less effective one.
Assume that the issue of whether to topple Saddam Hussein was a close question. The man was a ruthless dictator who engaged in mass murder. He refused to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors even though this was the condition that allowed him to stay in power after he lost the Kuwait war.
Some sensible people, such as former Clinton national security aide Kenneth Pollack, argued for "regime change" on grounds that Saddam was uniquely brutal and likely to acquire, and even use, nuclear weapons. Quite apart from whether this goal made sense, the bungling of its execution by Team Bush is unsurpassed in the history of American foreign policy.
The advocates of overthrowing Saddam inside the administration were an incompatible melange of people hoping that a "forward strategy" of aggressive military engagement would spread democracy, people covetous of Iraq's oil, and those who hoped that a changed Iraq would advance peace in Israel -- that the "road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad." Yet in the same administration were opponents of "nation building" and advocates of a more flexible military who did not want to become bogged down in long occupations. These worthies never sorted out their differences.
Here is just a partial list of administration bungles.
Wishful thinking. Bush's Iraq hawks relied on a corrupt and self-interested group of exiles led by Ahmed Chalabi for the crucial evidence of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons that provided the rationale for the invasion. The White House, already a laughingstock among US allies, has now, belatedly, turned against Chalabi.
Failure to plan for the postwar. The administration completely misperceived the situation on the ground in Iraq. Instead of removing top leaders and keeping the Iraqi Army intact to maintain civil order, the administration's relentless "de-Ba'athification" (now awkwardly reversed) led to a power vacuum and to anarchy. The average Iraqi, whatever he thought of overthrowing of Saddam, now associates the US invasion with civil disorder, tribal violence, and chaos.
Alienating America's allies. The United States, with more patience, might well have disarmed or dislodged Saddam through diplomacy. Instead, Bush isolated the United States to the point where allies who are now desperately needed to provide UN troops to stabilize Iraq won't go near the place.
Losing hearts and minds. Whether the torture of Iraqi prisoners is a failure of command and control or the logical outcome of America's policy, it is an epic blunder. These sordid images will never be forgotten by ordinary Iraqis.
Setting back democracy. Iraq was to be a shining beacon of Middle East democracy, which in turn would pressure other area regimes to democratize. But the Iraq mess has left the United States with more dependence on, and less influence over, nations like Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Promoting terror. The festering mess in Iraq is a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda. The war itself diverted special forces and material from Afghanistan needed for the far more crucial challenge of tracking down bin Laden and his henchmen.
Privatizing warfare. Far too much of the Iraq warfare is in the hands of soldiers of fortune and profiteering private companies. This undermines accountability and weakens our armed forces.
Bush's policies were built on fantasies and cheap slogans that have now come back to embarrass their authors: The premise that "shock and awe" would stun our adversaries into quick submission; the idea, accepted by no serious intelligence analyst, that radical Islamist Al Qaeda and militantly secular Saddam were part of a common terror network; the claim that a motley assortment of small nations whose troop commitments mostly numbered in the hundreds were a grand "coalition of the willing."
Because of 9/11, I am pretty hawkish about protecting America against terror. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan as well as the intervention in Bosnia. I believe the United States should play a forward role in defending human rights and constraining nuclear proliferation.
But policies built on illusions are doomed to fail because they bump up against reality. So this is not about hawk versus dove. It's about competence versus fantasy. These supposed tough defenders of America in a risky age of terror are actually the gang that can't shoot straight -- or think straight.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect
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