Jewish World Review April 16, 2004 / 26 Nissan, 5764
Learning the limits
While Democratic efforts to blame President Bush for the 9/11 terrorist
attacks are unseemly and ungrounded, the war in Iraq is another matter.
Far more that his tax cuts or the economy, the Iraq war is the defining
experience of the Bush presidency. And the war has turned out differently
than the Bush administration said it would in highly material ways.
At Bush's Tuesday press conference, a questioner enumerated some of them.
The Bush administration said that Saddam Hussein had biological and
chemical weapons and that the United States knew where they were. We would
be greeted as liberators. Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the country's reconstruction.
And then the key questions: "How do you explain to Americans how you got
that so wrong? And how do you answer your opponents, who say that you took
this nation to war on the basis of what have turned out to be a series of
Bush basically dodged the questions, repeating the assertion that Saddam
was a threat that had to be eliminated. He pointed out that oil production
is now up to significant levels and that the sense of the Iraqi people that
they are being occupied is a reason not to delay the transfer of
That's not a sufficient response.
I don't fault Bush for acting on the assumption that Saddam had biological
and chemical weapons and nuclear ambitions he was actively pursuing.
That was also the conclusion of the Clinton administration and intelligence
services around the world. And it was the best explanation of Saddam's
behavior: the failure to account for the disposition of known stockpiles of
weapons and the cat-and-mouse game with inspectors.
Moreover, interactions between al-Qaida and Saddam's regime have now been
established, although their intensity and significance are unclear.
So, the basic premise of the war that Saddam had weapons of mass
destruction and was a threat to provide them to terrorists - was the most
prudent planning assumption at the time.
Now the best evidence is that Saddam maintained a capability to produce
biological and chemical weapons rather quickly, but did not have stockpiles
of them. That's less of a threat, but a worrisome one nevertheless.
War was obviously the most certain way to eliminate that threat. But that does not mean that war was the best way for the United States to deal with the threat.
The Bush administration has failed to give sufficient weight to the
insularity of Arab Islam. As a result, it has misjudged the limits and
consequences of a U.S.-led attempt to transform the region. And it has been
blind to alternative strategies to enhance U.S. security by disentangling
ourselves from the region's intricate and dangerous geopolitics.
President Bush says we must stay the course in Iraq. But that course has
changed in fundamental ways.
Initially, the Bush administration said that it would only turn over
sovereignty to an elected Iraqi government. Now it is committed to turning
over sovereignty to an unelected Iraqi government by June 30.
The Bush administration initially rejected a significant role for the
United Nations in Iraq's reconstruction and political development. Now it
is counting on the U.N. to form a government to which sovereignty can be
But the key to success in Iraq, if it's to be had, isn't the transfer of
sovereignty on June 30, although that's an important step. The key is
holding the country together until a national assembly is elected by
Contrary to conventional wisdom, that may require finessing some security
issues to get to that date.
Although Iraqis undoubtedly don't want a Baathist restoration or al-Sadr's
Iranian-style theocracy, there's also clear resistance to the United
States, as a non-Islamic occupying power, clearing out these threats.
The Bush Iraq policy is not yet failing, as John Kerry until recently was
asserting. And Kerry's ardent internationalism will not enhance U.S.
But at least his fixation about multilateralism will act as a brake on
The concern about the Bush administration is that it doesn't seem to have a
sense of limits.
04/14/04:Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun
02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate