John Kerry isn't being entirely honest about his views on Iraq. But neither is President Bush. "Knowing what we know now," Bush asked, "would [Kerry] have supported going into Iraq?" The real answer is, of course, "no." But that's just as true for Bush as for Kerry.
We now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Is Bush suggesting that despite this knowledge he would still have concluded that Iraq constituted a "grave and gathering threat" that required an immediate, preventive war? Please. Even if Bush had come to this strange conclusion, no one would have listened to him. Without the threat of those weapons, there would have been no case to make to the American people or to world nations.
There were good reasons to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, but it was the threat of those weapons that created the international, legal, strategic and urgent rationale for a war. There were good reasons why intelligence agencies all over the world -- including those of Arab governments -- believed that Hussein had these weapons. But he didn't.
The more intelligent question is (given what we knew at the time): Was toppling Hussein's regime a worthwhile objective? Bush's answer is yes; Howard Dean's is no. Kerry's answer is that it was a worthwhile objective but was disastrously executed. For this "nuance" Kerry has been attacked from both the right and the left. But it happens to be the most defensible position on the subject.
By the late 1990s, U.S. policy on Iraq was becoming untenable. The U.N. sanctions had turned into a farce. Hussein was able to siphon off billions for himself, while the sanctions threw tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis into poverty every year. Their misery was broadcast daily across the Arab world, inflaming public opinion. The United States and Britain were bombing Iraqi military installations weekly and maintaining a large garrison in Saudi Arabia, which was also breeding trouble. Osama bin Laden's biggest charges against the United States were that it was occupying Saudi Arabia and starving the Iraqi people.
Given these realities, the United States had a choice. It could drop all sanctions and the containment of Iraq and welcome Hussein back into the world community. Or it had to hold him to account. Considering what we knew about Hussein's past (his repeated attacks on his neighbors, the gassing of the Kurds, the search for nuclear weapons) and considering what we thought we knew at the time (that his search for major weapons was active), conciliation looked like wishful thinking. It still does. Once out of his box, Hussein would almost certainly have jump-started his programs and ambitions.
Bush's position is that if Kerry agrees with him that Hussein was a problem, then Kerry agrees with his Iraq policy. Doing something about Iraq meant doing what Bush did. But is that true? Did the United States have to go to war before the weapons inspectors had finished their job? Did it have to junk the U.N. process? Did it have to invade with insufficient troops to provide order and stability in Iraq? Did it have to occupy a foreign country with no cover of legitimacy from the world community? Did it have to ignore the State Department's postwar planning? Did it have to pack the Iraqi Governing Council with unpopular exiles, disband the army and engage in radical de-Baathification? Did it have to spend a fraction of the money allocated for Iraqi reconstruction -- and have that be mired in charges of corruption and favoritism? Was all this an inevitable consequence of dealing with the problem of Saddam Hussein?
Perhaps Iraq would have been a disaster no matter what. But there's a thinly veiled racism behind such views, implying that Iraqis are savages genetically disposed to produce chaos and anarchy. In fact, other nation-building efforts over the past decade have gone reasonably well, when well planned and executed.
"Strategy is execution," Louis Gerstner, former chief executive of IBM, American Express and RJR Nabisco, has often remarked. In fact, it's widely understood in the business world that having a good objective means nothing if you implement it badly. "Unless you translate big thoughts into concrete steps for action, they're pointless," writes Larry Bossidy, former chief executive of Honeywell.
Bossidy has written a book titled "Execution," which is worth reading in this context. Almost every requirement he lays out was ignored by the Bush administration in its occupation of Iraq. One important example: "You cannot have an execution culture without robust dialogue -- one that brings reality to the surface through openness, candor and informality," Bossidy writes. "Robust dialogue starts when people go in with open minds. You cannot set realistic goals until you've debated the assumptions behind them."
Say this in the business world and it is considered wisdom. But say it as a politician and it is derided as "nuance" or "sophistication." Perhaps that's why Washington works as poorly as it does.