More than a year ago, well before President Bush decided to invade Iraq, I wrote the following: "I think it would be a terrible mistake to initiate a preemptive strike against Iraq without majority support from our European and Middle Eastern allies and the American people." Was I right? Or was I right? You tell me.
In that 2003 column, I used the dreaded "V" (Vietnam) word and doubted whether the American people would support a war that involved "significant" U.S. casualties. Well, now that nearly 700 American servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq, and thousands more wounded and/or maimed, my original question is more valid than ever.
Here's how I concluded last year's column: "I think the cost (of an Iraqi invasion) is too high until and unless President Bush convinces us that Saddam Hussein actually possesses weapons of mass destruction and, therefore, represents an imminent threat to U.S. national security." I rest my case.
And now let's fast-forward to April 2004. In his televised news conference Tuesday, President Bush strongly defended his Iraq policy and vowed that the U.S. will "stay the course," no matter what it costs in American lives and taxpayer dollars. Although I admire his apparently sincere desire to "change the world" for the better, I still question whether Iraq is the right place for us to make our near-solitary stand against terrorism and for freedom and democracy. Why not Iran and/or North Korea, the other equally dangerous members of the president's Axis of Evil?
"I have a plan to win the War on Terror," Bush declared. I sure hope so because I've had continuing doubts about the president's strategic plan. As I pointed out more than a year ago, the Bush administration had a plan to win the war in Iraq, but neglected to plan for peace. Part of the problem was that the administration left the Pentagon in charge of civil and political affairs for far too long, ignoring a detailed State Department blueprint for the reconstruction of Iraq, including the transition to democracy. I cringe every time I hear a retired general or colonel discussing the political future of Iraq on cable TV.
Writing in the Foreign Service Journal, foreign policy analyst David Rieff disclosed that the Defense Department paid "little heed" to State's comprehensive Future of Iraq Project, which "was an effort to consider almost every question likely to confront a post-Hussein Iraq: the rebuilding of infrastructure, the shape Iraqi democracy might take, the carrying out of transitional justice and the spurring of economic development ...." Instead, Defense relied heavily on Ahmad Chalabi and his dubious Iraqi National Congress for pre- and postwar policy guidance.
"In the mid-1990s," Rieff wrote, "Chalabi fell out of favor with the CIA and the State Department, which questioned his popular support in Iraq and accused him of misappropriating American government funds earmarked for armed resistance by Iraqi exile groups ...." Nevertheless, Chalabi retains DoD support and is a prominent member of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, which could assume responsibility for that country's civil and political affairs when the U.S. delivers "sovereignty" (whatever that means) to Iraq on June 30, as President Bush reiterated last Tuesday.
At the same time the Bush administration would like to turn over peacekeeping responsibilities in Iraq to the United Nations and/or NATO. But the UN has had a minimal presence in Iraq since it withdrew most of its personnel after terrorists bombed its Baghdad headquarters several months ago. As the New York Times noted last week, "Less than 90 days before the symbolic transfer of autonomy to an Iraqi governing body, the United States has not even seriously started working out the arrangements for bringing the United Nations into Iraq as a real partner." And that's a serious problem.
Many opponents of Bush's Iraq policy, including presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, believe that the Iraqi adventure has weakened the War on Terrorism, elevated the terrorist threat to America and turned foreign public opinion against us, especially in the Muslim world. Bush's opponents recently received intellectual support from Joseph S. Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former Clinton administration official. In his new book, "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics," Nye argues that "'hard (military) power' is not enough. By going ahead with the war in Iraq without the backing of the United Nations ... the United States alienated many of its allies and is now left bearing much of the burden of occupation and reconstruction a year after the war started."
By neglecting to use its "soft power" - focusing more on diplomacy and international cooperation - Nye warns that the U.S. risks not only losing popularity among allies, but also losing ground in its war against terrorism. "Acting in a manner that appeared arrogant to others ... did not prevent us from going to war and winning quickly, but it did prevent others from helping us after we had won," Nye said in a Newsweek interview.
As a former diplomat, I agree with Nye that we should challenge the new conventional wisdom that America is invincible, and that the so-called "new unilateralism" should guide U.S. foreign policy. As Nye says, "Our military power is very effective, but it isn't sufficient" to resolve complex international problems, like Iraq. So while I continue to support the War Against Terrorism, I simply don't believe that Iraq is a vital part of that war. We can't just cut and run, however, which requires us to seek international cooperation so that Iraq doesn't turn into a Vietnam-type quagmire.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.