Second Thoughts

A Hawk Questions Himself as His Son Goes to War

U.S. Marines from Lima Company, Third Battalion, 25th Regiment, walk past a mosque in Hit, 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June 29, 2005. Now in its second day, Operation Sword, with more than 1,000 U.S. troops and Iraqi forces, aims to crush insurgents and foreign fighters in western Iraq and is the third major offensive in the area in recent weeks. (AP Photo/Jacob Silberberg)
U.S. Marines from Lima Company, Third Battalion, 25th Regiment, walk past a mosque in Hit, 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June 29, 2005. Now in its second day, Operation Sword, with more than 1,000 U.S. troops and Iraqi forces, aims to crush insurgents and foreign fighters in western Iraq and is the third major offensive in the area in recent weeks. (AP Photo/Jacob Silberberg) (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Eliot A. Cohen
Sunday, July 10, 2005

War forces us, or should force us, to ask hard questions of ourselves. As a military historian, a commentator on current events and the father of a young Army officer, these are mine.

You supported the Iraq war when it was launched in 2003. If you had known then what you know now, would you still have been in favor

of it?

As I watched President Bush give his speech at Fort Bragg to rally support for the war the other week, I contemplated this question from a different vantage than my usual professorial perch. Our oldest son now dresses like the impassive soldiers who served as stage props for that event; he too wears crossed rifles, jump wings and a Ranger tab. Before long he will fight in the war that I advocated, and that the president was defending.

So it is not an academic matter when I say that what I took to be the basic rationale for the war still strikes me as sound. Iraq was a policy problem that we could evade in words but not escape in reality. But what I did not know then that I do know now is just how incompetent we would be at carrying out that task. And that's what prevents me from answering this question with an unhesitating yes.

The Bush administration did itself a disservice by resting much of its case for war on Iraq's actual possession of weapons of mass destruction. The true arguments for war reached deeper than that. Long before 2003, weapons inspections in Iraq had broken down, and sanctions, thanks to countries like Russia, China and France, were failing. The regime's character and ambitions, including its desire to resume suspended weapons programs, had not changed. In the meanwhile, the policy of isolation had brought suffering to the Iraqi people and had not stabilized the Gulf. Read Osama bin Laden's fatwas in the late 1990s and see how the massive American presence in Saudi Arabia -- a presence born of the need to keep Saddam Hussein in his cage -- fed the outrage of the jihadis with whom we are in a war that will last a generation or more.

More than this: Decades of American policy had hoped to achieve stability in the Middle East by relying on accommodating thugs and kleptocrats to maintain order. That policy, too, had failed; it was the well-educated children of our client regimes who leveled the Twin Towers, after all.

The administration was and is right in thinking that the overthrow of Saddam's regime could change the pattern of Middle Eastern politics in ways that, by favoring the cause of decent government and basic freedoms, would favor our interests as well. Iraq will not become Switzerland, a progressive and prosperous social democracy, for generations, if ever. But it can become a state that makes room for the various confessions and communities that constitute it, that has reasonably open and free politics, and that chooses a path to a future that could inspire other changes in the Arab Middle East. I still think something like that will happen. The administration believed that the invasion of Iraq would jolt and transform a region bewitched by the malignant dreams that my colleague Fouad Ajami has described so well -- the dark fantasies of Baathists, ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics. And indeed, in the aftermath of the Iraq war the cracks have begun to show -- in Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, and even in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

But a pundit should not recommend a policy without adequate regard for the ability of those in charge to execute it, and here I stumbled. I could not imagine, for example, that the civilian and military high command would treat "Phase IV" -- the post-combat period that has killed far more Americans than the "real" war -- as of secondary importance to the planning of Gen. Tommy Franks's blitzkrieg. I never dreamed that Ambassador Paul Bremer and Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the two top civilian and military leaders early in the occupation of Iraq -- brave, honorable and committed though they were -- would be so unsuited for their tasks, and that they would serve their full length of duty nonetheless. I did not expect that we would begin the occupation with cockamamie schemes of creating an immobile Iraqi army to defend the country's borders rather than maintain internal order, or that the under-planned, under-prepared and in some respects mis-manned Coalition Provisional Authority would seek to rebuild Iraq with big construction contracts awarded under federal acquisition regulations, rather than with small grants aimed at getting angry, bewildered young Iraqi men off the streets and into jobs.

I did not know, but I might have guessed.

You are a military historian; what does

the history of war have to tell us about the future of Iraq?


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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