Monday, November 27, 2006

Neocons Jumping Ship

President John F. Kennedy's famous remark that victory has a thousand fathers and that defeat is an orphan couldn't be more apt these days. The intellectual godfathers of the ruinous Iraq war - "neoconservatives" who insisted it would be a breeze to invade Iraq and transform it into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East - are jumping ship and pointing fingers.

Their scurrying defection is a telling measure of how poorly the war is going and how bleak the outlook is. As of today, U.S. involvement in Iraq will have lasted longer than American participation in World War II. The price in American lives is approaching 3,000; the cost in dollars exceeds $300 billion. The Thanksgiving Day massacre in Baghdad, in which bombings killed and wounded hundreds in a Shiite neighborhood, only underscored Iraq's descent into chaos.

The neoconservative version of history is that the Iraq war was good idea undone by Bush administration incompetence after Saddam Hussein fell. Influential adviser Kenneth Adelman, who famously predicted Iraq would be a "cakewalk," now says, "This didn't have to be managed this bad; it's just awful." Another prime mover behind the war, former assistantDefense secretary Richard Perle, told Vanity Fair: "The decisions did not get made that should have been. ... At the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible."

To blame administration bungling exclusively for the Iraq debacle, however, is to learn the wrong lesson. It's true that the occupation of Iraq was mismanaged from the outset. By failing to guard massive munitions stockpiles, the administration helped arm the insurgency. And by disbanding the Iraqi army, it gave the insurgency men to use those arms. But the mistakes began with the decision to go war itself, a naive and arrogant exercise in wishful thinking that the nation can't afford to repeat.

The pretext, of course, was that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that represented an imminent threat to U.S. security. In large part, however, the motivation was the neocons' belief - adopted by the administration - that ousting Saddam would create a beachhead for democracy in the Middle East. The effects, the neocons argued, would ripple through the region. The Arab public, inspired by U.S. ideals, would marginalize extremists and dictators alike, bringing peace.

U.S. policymakers would have benefited from more time reading history and less concocting rosy scenarios. In the 1920s, the British similarly believed that democracy could be imposed on a tribal culture accustomed to rule by strongmen. After a few massacres, the British learned their lesson, installed a king and retreated.

Now a bipartisan Iraq Study Group, the Bush administration and Congress are all scrambling to find a way out of the Iraq quagmire. None of the options is appealing or offers the sort of outcome the war's architects envisioned.

It's important not to buy the new self-serving line from the neoconservatives, some of whom are already beating the drums for a pre-emptive attack on
Iran's nuclear program. Recovering the international goodwill squandered in Iraq, and dealing wisely with the threats from Iran and North Korea, requires facing the mistakes squarely.

Although, on Sunday, the 1,347-day-old Iraq war was being compared in duration to WWII, the lessons are better drawn from Vietnam. Gen. Colin Powell, secretary of State in President Bush's first term, said his Vietnam generation learned from that experience to go into conflicts only with a defined mission, an overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy - and to reassess quickly if the mission changes. Unfortunately, in Iraq, the Powell Doctrine took a back seat to neoconservative fantasies.


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