A Foreign Policy, Falling Apart
By Robert G. Kaiser
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page B01
We have come to a delicate moment in an absorbing drama. The actors seem unsure of their roles. The audience is becoming restless with the confusion on stage. But the scriptwriters keep trying to convince the crowd that the ending they imagined can still, somehow, come to pass.
The authors stick to their plotline even as its plausibility melts away, and why not? For months the audience kept applauding; many of the reviewers were admiring, while many others kept still.
No more. Senior military officers, government officials, diplomats and others working in Iraq, commentators, experts and analysts have all joined a chorus of doubters that is large and growing. And the applause -- in this case, public approval as measured in polls -- is fading.
Already, some of the authors' friends are grabbing them by their rhetorical lapels. "Failures are multiplying," wrote George Will, the conservative columnist, yet "no one seems accountable."
The original script included parts for American soldiers and diplomats, Iraqis, Arabs and Europeans, but many declined to play along or refused to perform as directed. No matter -- the authors promised to "stay the course." A quick look back at the list of promises made and then abandoned demonstrates how little the play now conforms to the original scenario. And by the way, just what is that "course" we are staying on?
Americans are hopeless romantics -- we're always looking for the triumph of the good guys and happiness ever after. But any happy endings in Iraq remain so remote that they are invisible from here. Today no one seems able to come up with a realistic definition of what "success" might be. Instead the Bush administration has entrusted the future of the entire enterprise to an Algerian diplomat named Lakhdar Brahimi, whom we expect to assemble an Iraqi government in the next week or two -- an Algerian magic trick.
Many in the new chorus of doubters have enumerated the ways in which the success promised by the Bush administration both before and after the war has eluded us.
We have not made a "a crucial advance in the campaign against terror," the words President Bush used when he declared victory in "Operation Iraqi Freedom" on May 1, 2003. Instead we have stimulated new hatred of the United States in precisely the regions from which future terrorist threats are most likely to arise, while alienating our traditional allies. By embracing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, we abandoned the "honest broker" role that U.S. governments tried to play for four decades in the Middle East, and we confirmed the conspiratorial suspicions of every anti-American Arab. Our credibility has been battered.
We set out to put fear into the hearts of our enemies by demonstrating the efficacy of a new doctrine of preemptive war. Instead, we have shown the timeless nature of hubris. Last week we announced the transfer of 3,600 troops of the overstrained U.S. Army away from the border of what might be the world's most dangerous country, North Korea. They will be sent to help with the war in Iraq, for which we now acknowledge we had inadequate resources.
Contrary to the Bush administration's stated and implied promises -- "we will be greeted as liberators" was the vice president's famous version -- we did not achieve a relatively low-cost triumph in Iraq. Instead we have a crisis of still-growing dimensions. Our occupation policy has changed as often as the color of Madonna's hair. Ominously, as became clear with last week's assassination of Iraqi Governing Council president Izzedin Salim, we cannot even protect the Iraqis who have agreed to work with us.
The war has damaged the good name of the United States in every corner of the globe, has cost unanticipated scores of billions (all of it borrowed) and now threatens long-term damage to our Army and National Guard. War has already disfigured the 3,500 American families whose sons and daughters have been killed or seriously wounded in Iraq, and countless Iraqi families as well.
The United States gets itself into this kind of trouble when it turns away from that most fundamental of American values, pragmatism. The Bush administration's initial reaction to the first attacks on U.S. soil since the War of 1812 was highly pragmatic. It identified the source of the attack and went after it forcefully, with the country's and the world's enthusiastic support.
But even before the war in Afghanistan was won, pragmatism yielded to ideology, and Bush asked the Pentagon to prepare for "preemptive" war against Iraq. There was no traditional casus belli, no classical justification for war.
The war in Iraq was justified with two arguments that now appear dubious at best. The first was the idea that Iraq was an appropriate and important target in the new war against terror, when the United States had no evidence tying Saddam Hussein to any recent terrorism apart from the rewards he paid to the families of suicide bombers in Israel and other Palestinian "martyrs." The second was that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction threatened the United States, its allies and the entire Middle East region, but of course, those weapons have never been found.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company