Those who participated in shaping this strategy have already begun to shift blame to other participants. The list of favorite targets begins with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and extends to the Medal of Freedom recipients General Tommy Franks, George Tenet and Paul Bremer. Such self-serving gossip at the present time is a national embarrassment. While U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens continue to be the victims of suicide bombers and mines, the pursuit of the blame game among the chattering classes in Washington is not a helpful step toward a way forward in Iraq.
While there is general acceptance of the fact that U.S. post-invasion strategy in Iraq was fatally flawed, it is unlikely that a similar consensus exists on the original decision to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iraq in 2003. To this day, President Bush continues to cast the struggle in Iraq in terms of the global war on terror. Yet he insists that he never accused Saddam Hussein of complicity in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the United States.
Vice President Cheney and the neoconservative supporters of the invasion, however, continue to claim there was a link between the Iraqi dictator and the Islamic fundamentalists, who in fact were natural antagonists rather than allies. Polls indicated that most of the American public was persuaded at that time that Saddam was implicated in the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and saw the invasion as an act of retaliation.
Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator, but in 2003 he did not pose a threat to the United States. Despite the cheerleading of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Tenet, C.I.A. analysts were unsure about Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, and they did not recommend a pre-emptive invasion, with its uncertain aftermath. While a change of regime to a more democratic society in Iraq was a worthy goal, it could not be achieved through a military invasion. The invasion of Iraq was an unnecessary war of choice motivated by ideological assumptions and undertaken without the support of most of the traditional allies of the United States and of the international community.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was not a response to international terrorism but rather a wasteful distraction from that struggle. Four years later, however, Iraq has become a center of the campaign against terrorism as a result of the sectarian violence unleashed by the invasion and the dismal failure of U.S. strategy for a post-Saddam Iraq. Where there was no Al Qaeda network in Iraq before the invasion, there is one now.
At this point, however, both the Bush administration and its critics must move beyond the question of who was responsible for a disastrous decision. Self-serving books by participants in the discussions that led to the invasion only distract our nation’s leaders from the difficult decisions that must now be made. Similarly, political jockeying by a large field of candidates for the 2008 presidential election should not be allowed to obstruct the search for the common ground not only on ending the war but on assuring long-term possibilities for peace in the region. This includes promoting a lasting settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian question without imposing preconditions on either side or acceding to unilateral dictation of terms by one party to another.
No lasting resolution of the challenges in Iraq is possible without the cooperation of the international communitymore specifically Iraq’s neighbors, who despite their differences would benefit from greater regional stability. There are signs that the Bush administration has recognized this necessity, even if its public rhetoric toward Syria and Iran retains a belligerent tone. The participation of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in meetings that included representatives of both nations and private talks with the Syrian foreign minister was consistent with the kind of diplomatic initiatives that the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group proposed.
If Iraq’s neighbors were persuaded that regional stability would be in their long-term interests, a peace-keeping force composed of troops from the region could supplement Iraq’s struggling military and eventually replace U.S. troops, who are increasingly seen and attacked as an external army of occupation. Such a prospect may seem quixotic to the neoconservative stay-at-home warriors who promoted this unnecessary war, but it may represent the best hope for peace in the region and an effective response to Islamic jihadists.