Culpability Deficit Disorder

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ever since Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's vice president, uttered the immortal phrase "What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar," people have felt challenged to better it. So if you Google the phrase "what this country needs," you will find that it needs many things, including a national architect, better infrastructure or this peach of an idea from Will Rogers: "dirtier fingernails and cleaner minds." Allow me, though, a suggestion that applies to the war in Iraq: Ritalin.

This drug for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is sorely needed. ADHD explains why few seem to challenge the call to continue the mission in Iraq, apparently forgetting that the mission has changed and no one is quite sure what it is now. It explains why after just 100 hours the first President Bush concluded the Persian Gulf War with Saddam Hussein still in power and his helicopters slaughtering rebellious Shiites and Kurds. And it explains why the Carter, Reagan and first Bush administrations so ardently supported Hussein and then -- an administration later -- made it U.S. policy to topple him. We were always forgetting the kind of guy he was.

ADHD also explains why we are still fighting in Afghanistan almost five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that launched the war against the Taliban. It's because our attention got diverted from the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda, which had attacked us, to Iraq, which had not. Take two pills for this one.

Finally, ADHD explains -- if anything possibly can -- why the United States went into Iraq with virtually no idea of what to do the day after the war was essentially won. Not only did the United States lack the patience to do nation-building -- what to do with the army, the police, the Baath Party? -- but it would not even supply the troops to secure government offices and ministries. Widespread looting broke out; public property was not protected. "It is not exaggerating to say that the United States may have lost the war on the very day it took Baghdad, April 9, 2003," writes Peter W. Galbraith in his forthcoming book, "The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End."

This is just the latest book to detail the virtually inexplicable: how Washington screwed up so badly in Iraq. But since Galbraith starts his book by reviewing previous administrations and their dealings with Iraq, it also serves as a useful antidote to the current infatuation with so-called foreign policy realists. These are the supposedly hard-bitten, pragmatic, realpolitik guys who eschew dreamy moralism and ask, always: What's in it for us? They include, prominently, President George H.W. Bush's secretary of state, James A. Baker, and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Neither of them, it is often said, would have taken us to war again in Iraq.

Yes indeed. But they did give Hussein every reason to believe he could get away with anything he wanted. The first Bush administration, as with the Reagan administration before it, was ever solicitous of the Kurd-gassing Hussein, and it later reacted with torpor as Iraq mobilized for its invasion of Kuwait. Even after the United States had gone to war, Bush ended hostilities prematurely, preferring to leave Hussein in power rather than deal with an unruly Iraq. The "realists" unrealistically set the stage for the next gulf war. I agree with Galbraith: Had the first Bush and the blustery Norman Schwarzkopf ("You fly, you die," he said of Iraqi helicopters. They did and they didn't.) applied a bit more pressure, the Iraqi military would have taken care of Saddam Hussein. This appalling "realism" resulted in the murder of thousands of Shiites.

The first rule of warfare is kill your enemy -- or make sure, in some way, that he can no longer do you any damage. The first Bush administration ignored that rule with Saddam Hussein and now the second one has ignored it with Osama bin Laden. It allowed this mass murderer to escape, and he will come back to haunt us; it is what he lives for. Bin Laden does not suffer from ADHD.

As any ADHDer can tell you, it is the moment that counts. What comes next or before is over the horizon. This is particularly true in a sound-bite, bitterly partisan era in which it is possible to say "cut and run" and think (or pretend) you have actually said something. It's easy enough to say that America's leaders suffer from ADHD, but on the basis of all this, it's apparent that so do we all. We always forget to hold them accountable.

Pass the Ritalin, please.

cohenr@washpost.com


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