Don't put the blame for Iraq on President Bush alone. Nothing, it would seem, could have stopped the Bush administration from pursuing its long-standing plans against Saddam Hussein. But placing responsibility for the Iraq debacle solely on Bush's shoulders is too simple and even potentially dangerous. It blurs the responsibilities of others who contributed to an environment in which new, bad ideas were embraced while proven, good ones were shed.
It is important to learn that whatever the threat — terrorism included — no government should be afforded the latitude enjoyed by the Bush administration. The media — both reporters and commentators — are among the prime culprits here. The promise that democracy would spread from a liberated Iraq, for example, was as poorly scrutinized as the notion advanced by the administration that the Geneva Convention did not apply to the war against terror.
Today few doubt that the administration's performance in postwar Iraq has been inept. This consensus, however, risks eclipsing the reality that many potentially influential players seem to have been stunned into submission or ineffectual opposition to the whims of the White House.
It is not just that intelligence agencies were too willing to confirm the "facts" that their political bosses wanted to hear. Many Democrats were too frightened of appearing "soft on terror" and thus signed political and military blank checks to an administration prone to overdrafts. Blinded by partisanship, congressional Republicans were subservient to the White House's wishes even when these wishes contradicted age-old Republican values such as fiscal conservatism. Fearing irrelevance, U.S. diplomats were too quick to accept the notion that negotiated approaches on Iraq had run their course. Some journalists were so deferential to official sources that their reports seemed almost stenographic.
Further facilitating Bush's failures in Iraq was the climate of opinion created by gullible newspaper commentary writers and ratings-hungry talk-show hosts. Even the normally vociferous lobby of nongovernmental organizations was strangely restrained.
Any government allocating multibillion-dollar contracts the way the Bush administration did in Iraq would normally draw the wrath of anti-corruption organizations. But in this case, the usually loud denunciations were mere whispers.
Human rights groups, while expressing concern over detainees at Guantanamo Bay and some aspects of the war, appeared torn and reticent over an initiative aimed at ousting a genocidal torturer. It took the horror of torture in Abu Ghraib prison finally to eliminate such uncharacteristic lethargy.
International leaders who joined the U.S.-led coalition were either too timid or ineffective in steering the Bush administration away from questionable decisions. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the United Kingdom's former ambassador to the United Nations, recently noted that "the damage to world diplomacy if America went solo was too awful to contemplate." Alas, the support for Bush by Tony Blair, the British prime minister, did not render the damage to international diplomacy any less awful.
Even leaders who confronted Bush did so in ways that only emboldened U.S. actions. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opposed Bush so clumsily and in such blatant pursuit of narrow political interests that their objections to the war became easy to ridicule and ignore.
The same goes for Arab states and the Arab League in particular, whose calls for immediate elections in Iraq displayed a sudden democratic fervor that the organization had never applied to any of its members.
But perhaps the ultimate enabler was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In the U.S., the shock and pain caused by the attacks fed the widespread notion that "business as usual" in American foreign policy was no longer an option. They also led to the renouncing of fundamental principles that never should have been abandoned. Many basic rights, including safeguards against indefinite detention without charges, were cast aside as obsolete notions for a nation fighting a global war on terror.
But neither the evildoers nor the war on terrorism will go away. What needs to go is the tragic alchemy that allows time-tested principles to be too easily discarded in favor of bad ideas. New approaches are surely needed. But they should not be embraced at the expense of the very principles that make wars worth fighting.
Moisés Naím is the editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times