Jewish World Review April 16, 2004 / 26 Nissan, 5764

Robert Robb

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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 false premises?"

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 sovereignty.

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.

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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 transferred.

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 January, 2005.

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. security.

But at least his fixation about multilateralism will act as a brake on misadventure.

The concern about the Bush administration is that it doesn't seem to have a sense of limits.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


04/14/04:Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun
04/11/04: Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
04/09/04: Fact checking Kerry's federal budget plans
04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
04/02/04: Kerry's tax epiphany makes some cents
03/31/04: What could have prevented 9/11
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
03/23/04: McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding?
03/17/04: Bin Laden makes distinctions?
03/12/04: In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism
03/01/04: Greenspan view scary, but Dems in denial

02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate

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