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Why are American Troops in Najaf?
Published on Monday, August 16, 2004 by the International Herald Tribune
Why are American Troops in Najaf?
by Richard Reeves

Senator John Kerry has not been successful so far in articulating answers to questions about whether and how the United States should go to war. But he will be guided by this draft of military application policy:

"The United States should not commit its forces to military action overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest. If the decision is made to commit its forces to combat abroad, it must be done with clear intent and support to win. There must be clearly defined and realistic objectives. There must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for will have the support of the American people and Congress. ... Our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available."

The author of those words, slightly paraphrased here, is not working in the Kerry campaign. Those are the words of President Ronald Reagan, condensing the thoughts of his Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, whose original version, part of a speech he made in late 1984, included the phrase "or of our allies" after "vital national interest."

So what are we Americans doing in Najaf? Is killing the followers of a nasty Shiite preacher, killing them at the gates of the most holy shrine of Shiite Muslims all over the world, vital to the national interests of the United States and its allies?

And why is it that we are killing Shiites, the wretched of the earth in the secular Sunni Muslim country of Saddam Hussein? That is the same Saddam who murdered the father of the preacher five years ago. Was that our clear intent and realistic objective in invading Iraq? Would the American people and Congress - and our allies - have supported a $200 billion war to get a preacher, Moktada al-Sadr?

And was invasion our last resort? Even the war-maker himself, President George W. Bush, never claimed that. In the beginning, he said, it was the last resort because the United Nations had pushed hard enough to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When there were no such weapons, he said Saddam was a very bad guy. That was true - and it was true 20 years ago when we were supplying him with weapons to use against Iran. But was he a great enough threat to go to war ourselves? Was killing Iraqis after the war our last resort?

"I know what I'm doing when it comes to winning this war," said Bush last Wednesday. That's good to hear. What exactly are you doing in Najaf? Killing bad guys, I guess. If that is the criteria for putting the Marines around the shrine of the Imam Ali, then we will be at war forever, everywhere.

Reagan, no "girly-man" he, began thinking hard and differently about sending young men and women into harm's way after 241 U.S. Marines on a peace-keeping mission to Lebanon were killed by a truck-bomber who crashed into their barracks near the Beirut airport in October of 1983. Seven years later in his autobiography he wrote:

"Perhaps we didn't appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and complexity of the problems that made the Middle East such a jungle. Perhaps the idea of a suicide car bomber committing mass murder to gain instant entry to Paradise was so foreign to our own values and consciousness that it did not create in us the concern for the Marines' safety that it should have."

Reagan pulled the Marines out five months later, saying: "In the weeks immediately after the bombing, I believed the last thing we should do was turn tail and leave. ... Yet, the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to re-think our policy there."

It was then that Reagan wrote his list of policies regarding use of the military and concluded with this: "I would recommend it to future presidents."

Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune


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