Why This Is Not That

February 20
, 2002

“He said true things, but called them by wrong names,” Robert Browning wrote of his Bishop Blougram. Apparently the reverse also works, and perhaps with greater success, as those wanting war beyond Afghanistan perfect the art of passing wrong things under the guise of true names.

In the days following September 11, Americans resolved to run Al Qaeda to earth and do justice by our fallen countrymen. But in the months since, we’ve been told that starving children in North Korea and repression in Iran belong to the same crusade, and that we should attach the righteous zeal that pursued the Taliban to “ending” Iraq. Seamless labels like “unfinished business” and “phase two” convince many that it’s all connected, but the proposed sequel bears no relation to what came before.

In 1998, in an open letter to then President Clinton, a group of neo-conservatives headlined by Bill Kristol called on the Administration to make “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power….the aim of American foreign policy.” Predictably, Mr. Clinton passed on their “offer” of “full support.”

Fast forward three years. Enter a Republican president, a few well-placed friends, and, for the neo-cons, a silver-lined tragedy. Means, motive, opportunity. Fanning the embers of 9/11, Kristol & Co. dispatched another open letter to the White House, changing little more than the addressee. “Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack,” their missive read, “any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” This time, they caught a toehold.

The clear-eyed Commander who in September focused his country on the defeat of global terror now speaks of an axis. We read more of Baghdad than bin Laden, more of regime change in Iraq than the interim government in Kabul. No matter than Saddam has never been linked to the murderous hijackers or anthrax in the mail. His sentence has already been delivered: guilty, not by action or association, but because a small but influential group found a moment to channel public rage toward their agenda.

But there will be no Afghan extension and no Gulf War encore.

In Afghanistan, the combination of American air strikes and local opposition fighters worked because the regime was weak, the people reviled it, and the guerillas were already battled-tried. The Iraqi National Congress, cobbling together untrained Kurds from the north and Shiites scattered through the south cannot reprise the Northern Alliance’s role. The Taliban had but 45,000 troops. Saddam still fields 400,000 and maintains extensive air defense systems.

In Desert Storm, we struck Iraq with an air campaign of historic proportion - 110,000 sorties compared to just 6,500 against the Taliban -- and followed up with a massive ground offensive propelled by U.S. armed forces twice their current number. This time, with our goal of regime change well known, Saddam will fight to the death, emptying his chemical and biological weapons cache, tightening his fist around the north, and strangling our oil supply.

As for the grand coalition of 38 nations assembled for Desert Storm, it will not pass our way again. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder has refused to back American "adventures," and the French Foreign Minister calls our policy “simplistic.” Russian President Putin warns that "Iraq is not on this list," and the EU’s Chris Patten speaks of “unilateralist overdrive.” Security advisor Richard Perle says the U.S. has "never been more willing if necessary to act alone," but bravado won’t provide bases or overflight permission, much less soldiers and sailors. Congress, the UN Security Council, and NATO all backed Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. None have consented to a Gulf War redux.

But suppose we succeed - absent allies, constitutional consent, regional support or apparent justification. In Afghanistan, we were able to cede custody to the UN because the American-led operation had international assent. We sign checks, but escape liability for a property we’d rather not maintain. Not so Iraq. If we remove Saddam, the U.S., as Ken Pollack writes in the current Foreign Affairs, “would be left owning a country of 22 million people ravaged by more than two decades of war, totalitarian misrule, and severe deprivation.” Cost estimates for rebuilding Iraq, not including damage done by our war, range from $50 to $150 billion - a perpetual support payment America may not be prepared to make.

Yet our leaders look to be lacing their boots.

Before the American public lines up behind, we might consider whether right things are being called by right names. Iraq is not Afghanistan, and Saddam is not bin Laden. We have a war to fight, against a far-flung and elusive enemy. Why should we now seek another? Any why are a persuasive few so committed to sidetracking our war on terror? If their cause is just, they should have no reason to deny its true name. And if it isn’t, America has no business being there.

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