Getting Out of a Quagmire
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A19
It's not clear anymore that there is a plausible way to turn the Bush administration's disastrous policy in Iraq into anything that would look remotely like success.
That's why the conventional wisdom among policymakers has reached a tipping point over the past month. Until recently, the widely accepted view was that the United States would have to "see through" the commitment President Bush made. Now, thoughtful people -- including moderates, conservatives and foreign policy realists -- are discussing how to get the United States out of Iraq sooner rather than later, at the lowest possible cost to our own standing in the world and to Iraqis.
This view is being taken seriously because of the incoherence of the administration's approach and its arrogance in dealing with its critics. If you think that word "arrogance" is too strong, consider the statement Vice President Cheney issued through a spokesman over the weekend: that "Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of defense the United States has ever had," and that "people ought to get off his case and let him do his job."
Let's see. A couple of congressional committees get roughly a half-day each to ask Rumsfeld about one the most appalling moral disasters in our military's history, at the Abu Ghraib prison, and now they should shut up. Cheney knows Rumsfeld is the best. That should be enough.
This was too much for Sen. Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina. Last week's Senate hearing, Graham said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," was not about "being on Secretary Rumsfeld's back. . . . The Congress has an independent duty to find out what happened in that prison. It affects us all."
We are also affected by the fact that nearly every problem we face in Iraq is a problem the administration was warned about before it started the war. But an all-knowing administration felt no need to listen.
How many voices were raised suggesting the White House was being too optimistic about the way American troops might be received in the long run? Even if we were greeted as "liberators," in Cheney's famous phrase, many Iraqis who would be happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein might soon want to be rid of us as well.
Given the uncertainties, critics said that we needed a much bigger force than we were sending to restore order and prevent an insurgency from taking root. Gen. Eric Shinseki made this point before the war started. He was swatted aside and told to get off the administration's case.
Knocking over Hussein was always going to be easier than nation-building, a practice the administration was against until it started engaging in it. To pull it off, the administration might have used a little more help from allies and a little more of the legitimacy that U.N. endorsement could have conferred. The administration told those who offered this view to get off its case and go munch freedom fries with some Old Europeans.
Voters will ask now, and historians will ask later: Why did this administration take such an enormous gamble with apparently so little planning against what could go wrong? Why did it rush into war -- a war whose date it had complete freedom to choose -- without working through the potential problems that senators such as Joe Biden and Richard Lugar, both war supporters, kept raising? I guess when you have the best secretary of defense the United States ever had, you don't sweat the details.
The administration's supporters like to ask its critics: So what would you do? It's only a partly fair question because the critics have already said how many things they would have done differently. Belatedly, the administration is finally following their advice to find more allies and gain more legitimacy. But the administration's failures will hardly inspire a lot of new coalition partners to join in.
The more relevant question between now and the election is to Bush and his administration: How will they turn this mess into either success or something short of failure? A president asking voters to grant him four more years owes them evidence that the era of recklessness and overconfidence is over.
Robert Kagan and William Kristol, two of the war's strongest supporters, write in the current issue of the conservative Weekly Standard that "if the administration does not take dramatic action now, it may be unable to avoid failure." If Kagan and Kristol are that worried, the rest of us should be petrified. Most likely, Cheney will just tell Kagan and Kristol to get off Bush's case.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company