The basic mistake of American policy in Iraq is not that the Pentagon–believing the fairy tales told it by Iraqi exile groups and overriding State Department advice–forgot, when planning “regime change,” to bring along a spare government to replace the one it was smashing; not that, once embarked on running the place, the Administration did not send enough troops to do the job; not that a civilian contingent to aid the soldiers was lacking; not that the Baghdad museum, the Jordanian Embassy, the United Nations and Imam Ali mosque, among other places, were left unguarded; not that no adequate police force, whether American or Iraqi, was provided to keep order generally; not that the United States, seeking to make good that lack, then began to recruit men from the most hated and brutal of Saddam’s agencies, the Mukhabarat; not that, in an unaccountable and unparalleled lapse in America’s once sure-fire technical know-how, Iraq’s electrical, water and fuel systems remain dysfunctional; not that the Administration has erected a powerless shadow government composed in large measure of the same clueless exiles that misled the Administration in the first place; not that the Administration has decided to privatize substantial portions of the Iraqi economy before the will of the Iraqi people in this matter is known; not that the occupation forces have launched search-and-destroy operations that estrange and embitter a population that increasingly despises the United States; not that, throughout, a bullying diplomacy has driven away America’s traditional allies.
All these blunders and omissions are indeed mistakes of American policy, and grievous ones, but they are secondary mistakes. The main mistake of American policy in Iraq was waging the war at all. That is not a conclusion that anyone should have to labor to arrive at. Something like the whole world, including most of its governments and tens of millions of demonstrators, plus the UN Security Council, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Governor Howard Dean and this magazine, made the point most vocally before the fact. They variously pointed out that the Iraqi regime gave no support to Al Qaeda, predicted that the United States would be unable to establish democracy in Iraq by force–and that therefore no such democracy could serve as a splendid model for the rest of the Middle East–warned that “regime change” for purposes of disarmament was likely to encourage other countries to build weapons of mass destruction, and argued that the allegations that Iraq already had weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them at any moment (within forty-five minutes after the order was delivered, it was said) were unproven. All these justifications for the war are now on history’s ash heap, never to be retrieved–adding a few largish piles to the mountains of ideological claptrap (of the left, the right and what have you) that were the habitual accompaniment of the assorted horrors of the twentieth century.
Recognition of this mistake–one that may prove as great as the decision to embark on the Vietnam War–is essential if the best (or at any rate the least disastrous) path out of the mess is to be charted. Otherwise, the mistake may be compounded, and such indeed is the direction in which a substantial new body of opinion now pushes the United States. In this company are Democrats in Congress who credulously accepted the Bush Administration’s arguments for the war or simply caved in to Administration pressure, hawkish liberal commentators in the same position and a growing minority of right-wing critics.
They now recommend increasing American troop strength in Iraq. Some supported the war and still do. “We must win,” says Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who went on Good Morning America to recommend dispatching more troops. His colleague Republican John McCain agrees. The right-wing Weekly Standard is of like mind. Others were doubtful about the war at the beginning but think the United States must “win” now that the war has been launched. The New York Times, which opposed an invasion without UN Security Council support, has declared in an editorial that “establishing a free and peaceful Iraq as a linchpin for progress throughout the Middle East is a goal worth struggling for, even at great costs.” And, voicing a view often now heard, it adds, “We are there now, and it is essential to stay the course.” Joe Klein, of Time, states, “Retreat is not an option.”