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Like It's 1999

Foreign policy is not theology. The only way to make sensible choices in this realm is to weigh costs and benefits. A policy that might have been wise crumbles if the costs become prohibitive. For example, protecting South Vietnam from a communist invasion from the north was a worthwhile goal. The horrendous costs of doing so, however, made it a bad policy. For those of us who supported the war in Iraq, the question is simple--have the costs risen so high that they outweigh any benefit? It's a fair question, since the manner in which Iraq has been handled over the past 18 months has racked up enormous costs. Still, I think the intervention has the potential to be a success if we learn the lessons--the right lessons--of this last year and a half.

I was not one of those who had been urging another war against Iraq ever since the first Gulf war. Through the 1990s, I thought the strategy pursued by the first Bush and Clinton administrations—sanctions and containment—was a reasonable solution to a difficult problem. But, by the late '90s, this strategy was falling apart. In the isolated atmosphere created by sanctions, Saddam Hussein's grip on power had tightened. He had found ways to manipulate the sanctions system by cheating and smuggling (the best estimate of his take is $10 billion). Yet, the sanctions were pushing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis into poverty every year, a reality that was televised across the Arab world daily.

Keeping Saddam "in his box" meant air attacks almost weekly on Iraqi military facilities. It also meant the United States had to maintain a garrison in Saudi Arabia, something that was creating enormous regional instability. Recall that Osama bin Laden's infamous 1996 fatwa is titled "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places." Bin Laden's main complaints against the United States were that it was "occupying" Saudi Arabia and starving the Iraqi people. Palestine came in a distant third. Being a man gifted with a great sense of mass appeal, bin Laden had calculated that these were the causes most likely to galvanize Arabs and Muslims.

I did not believe Saddam had a lethal arsenal of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and I wrote as much in the months before the war (though, like everyone who is being honest, I am utterly astonished by what appears to be the lack of any weapons). But Saddam was an erratic, unpredictable leader who had been actively working against the United States and its interests--and peace in the region--for two decades. That meant he was a looming threat. Given the collapsing sanctions regime, at some point the United States would have to decide to move in one direction or the other. It could either welcome Saddam back into the community of nations and let him do what he would as a free agent. Or it could gather an international coalition to replace him. I wish that this latter policy had been pursued slowly and deliberately, with a genuine effort to forge a broad coalition and get the United Nations behind it. But, in the end, you have to decide whether to support the policy the president is pursuing—not the variation of it you wish he were pursuing. And I decided that, while timing and circumstances were not perfect, getting rid of one of the most ghastly regimes in the world, one that was a continued threat to U.S. interests, was worth supporting. Morality and realpolitik came together in the case against Saddam.

GIVEN WHAT'S HAPPENED in Iraq over the last year, was all this wrong? It is becoming conventional wisdom to speak of Iraq as an unmanageable crisis that no policy can untangle. "[Not] every problem has a solution," wrote Peter Galbraith in The New York Review of Books. But is that really the lesson of the last year? That nation-building is impossible in Iraq? That the Iraqis are savages who cannot govern themselves? That America is bound to fail in such endeavors? If that is the case, then how to make sense of East Timor, Kosovo, and Bosnia (not to mention Japan, Germany, South Korea, and a host of other cases)? Over the last five years, the United States has helped these societies overcome terrible odds, maintain peace, and begin to build more decent governments. They are still far from perfect (Kosovo is, in fact, a mess), but they're a lot better off than they were. All of these places are quite different from Iraq, but, in some ways, the problems they posed were far more challenging. If, in Iraq, you face a potential civil war, in Bosnia you had an actual one, lasting for years, that had created deep scars. If Iraqi nationalism seems fierce, Serbian and Croatian nationalism was by any measure more violent and internecine. If—to take the unspoken assumption—Muslims are the problem, Bosnia and Kosovo have lots of them.

The real lesson of the last year is that the Bush administration's inept version of nation-building failed. The administration's strategists used Iraq as a laboratory to prove various deeply held prejudices: for example, that the Clinton administration's nation-building was fat and slow, that the United Nations was irrelevant, that the United States faced no problem of legitimacy in Iraq, that Ahmed Chalabi would become a Mesopotamian Charles de Gaulle. In almost every case, facts on the ground quickly disconfirmed these theories. But, so committed were these government officials to their ideology—and so powerful within the administration—that it took 14 months for policy to adjust to these failures. In the last month, the United States has finally reversed course, sending more troops, scaling back de-Baathification, dumping Chalabi, bringing in the United Nations, and listening to Iraqis on the ground. This shift in policy is already making a difference, easing the anti-Americanism and the sense of international isolation that has plagued the Iraq mission. If they keep up the reversals, Iraq still has a chance.

Compare Iraq with Afghanistan. Looked at in the abstract, Afghanistan is potentially far more chaotic than Iraq. It's a country riven with tribes and warlords that hasn't had a functioning state for 30 years--and perhaps not for three centuries. Yet, America's nation-building there has been more successful than in Iraq--with far less money spent on it. Many problems remain, but the country is unquestionably better off than it was under the Taliban. The simplest statistic to prove the point is that, since the fall of Kabul, two million Afghan refugees have returned to their country.

Why has Afghanistan been more successful than Iraq? In Afghanistan, the Bush administration adopted a version of postwar policies developed over the '90s. After the war, it handed the political process over to the United Nations and directed its military efforts through nato. The United Nations was able to structure a political process (the loya jirga) that had legitimacy within Afghanistan as well as internationally. With some massaging, it produced a pro- Western liberal as president. Making the military efforts multinational has meant that today, the European Union spends about as much on Afghanistan as the United States and that the new Afghan army is being trained jointly by the United States and ... France.

The biggest mistake I made on Iraq was to believe that the Bush administration would want to get Iraq right more than it wanted to prove its own prejudices right. I knew the administration went into Iraq with some crackpot ideas, but I also believed that, above all else, it would want success on the ground. I reasoned that it would drop its pet theories once it was clear they were not working. I still don't understand why the Bush team proved so self-defeatingly stubborn. Perhaps its initial success in Afghanistan emboldened it to move forward unconstrained. Perhaps its prejudices about Iraq had developed over decades and were deeply held. Perhaps the administration was far more divided and dysfunctional than I had recognized, making rational policy impossible.

BUT, SINCE WE are listing mistakes, the biggest one many opponents of the war are making is to claim that Iraq is a total distraction from the war on terrorism. In fact, Iraq is central to that conflict. I don't mean this in the deceptive and dishonest sense that many in the Bush administration have claimed. There is no connection between Saddam's regime and the terrorists of September 11. But there is a deep connection between his regime and the terrorism of September 11. The root causes of Islamic terrorism lie in the dysfunctional politics of the Middle East, where failure and repression have produced fundamentalism and violence. Political Islam grew in stature as a mystical alternative to the wretched reality--secular dictatorships--that have dominated the Arab world. A new Iraq provides an opportunity to break this perverse cycle. The country is unlikely to become a liberal democracy any time soon. But it might turn out to be a pluralistic state that gives minorities limited protections, allows for some political participation, and has a reasonably open society. That would be a revolution in the Arab world.

The right lesson of Iraq so far is not that nation-building must fail, but rather that President Bush's approach to it, unless corrected, will fail. The right lesson is not that U.S. military intervention always ruptures alliances and creates an enraged international public, but rather that this particular intervention did. Most important, it is not that American power aggressively employed does more harm than good. Rather, the right lesson is that American power, because it is so overweening, must be used with extraordinary care and wisdom. Most of the world's problems—from aids to the Israeli-Palestinian issue—would be better served with more American intervention, not less. But, because of the blunders in Iraq, it is possible that most of the world, and far too many Americans, will draw the wrong lesson on this final point as well.

This article originally ran in the June 28, 2004, issue of the magazine.