As U.S. casualties mount and stories of military funerals compete for front-page attention with positive Pentagon assessments, the future of U.S. military action in Iraq threatens to become an issue in the presidential politics of the 2004 election year. Democratic candidates have already suggested that this is the wrong war at the wrong time. The Bush administration has begun to talk of accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces, even though Senator John McCain argues that the current U.S. military presence in Iraq is too small for the task it confronts.
In the weeks and months leading up to Washington’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein last March and the consequent invasion, President Bush offered several justifications for a pre-emptive military strike against the Iraqi regime. In retrospect it is clear that, however brutal that regime may have been toward its own people, it posed no “great and gathering danger” to the people of the United States. In fact, Saddam’s military forces had remained crippled after their defeat in the first Persian Gulf war, and no evidence of weapons of mass destruction was found either by U.N. inspectors before the invasion or by U.S. forces in the months following their swift victory.
As the White House now explicitly admits, there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein was in any way involved in a conspiracy with the Al Qaeda terrorists who launched the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, even though public opinion polls continue to report that many Americans still believe in such a conspiracy. After the U.S. invasion, however, Muslim terrorists from different countries have apparently infiltrated Iraq, drawn by what they see as a holy war against the U.S. occupation force. An alliance between Al Qaeda terrorists and Saddam loyalists, which did not exist before the invasion, has come to pass as a result of the invasion.
Long before the attacks of Sept. 11, Paul D. Wolfowitz, now deputy defense secretary, and others who believed that the 1991 gulf war should not have ended with Saddam Hussein still in power, had urged the Clinton administration to support regime change in Iraq. Their case for overthrowing Saddam gained emotional currency after the terrorist attacks, when President Bush was persuaded that the danger posed by Saddam Hussein could no longer be contained by the international community and that military intervention was necessary. The invasion of Iraq was presented as the next step in the “war on terrorism,” when, in fact, a strong case could be made that such an invasion was a costly distraction from the campaign against international terrorism, and the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden in particular.
However flawed the case for invading Iraq may have been, the premature withdrawal of U.S. military forces would not only be a humiliating defeat for the United States but a betrayal of the hopes of the Iraqi people, who suffered too long under a ruthless tyrant and now have an opportunity to rebuild their society. Terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere would be encouraged in their nihilistic tactics. Islamic leaders who seek to rescue their peoples from the dangers of fundamentalism and introduce them to the benefits, material and cultural, of the modern world would find their credibility undercut, perhaps fatally. For all of these reasons, the United States must stay the course in Iraq.
In managing the future, however, we can learn from the mistakes of the past. Introducing liberal democracy in the societies of the Middle East is a worthy and even necessary objective. But unilateral military action is a clumsy and dangerous instrument to achieve such an end. Such action obscures and distorts the appeal of American ideals of equality and opportunity based on human dignity, the “soft values” of American society that exercise such a powerful appeal to peoples in other, less fortunate parts of the world.
While remaining vigilant against the terrorists now waging a guerrilla war in Iraq, the United States should encourage Iraqi citizens, including former officers and men of the Iraqi armed forces, to assume more and more responsibility for the restoration of their society. At the same time, the United States should seek to strengthen the role of the United Nations, as the legitimate voice of the international community. Chastened, perhaps, by the unforeseen dangers of overreaching and the daunting costs of peacekeeping and nation-building, Washington policy makers should seek to restore more productive working relationships with our allies in the European community and elsewhere.
Promoting authentic freedom in the Middle East is a noble aspiration but a complex undertaking. It is surely not a task that can or should be directed by one nation alone, no matter how powerful its economic resources and military strength.