America’s political leadership is about to face a devilishly difficult question. Assume that you believe, as I do, that deposing Saddam Hussein by force is in America’s national interest. Under the present circumstances, believing this forces upon you a second question which is in many ways more difficult than the first.
Here is how I would frame the question: Is it possible that regime change by force is the right thing to do, but that this administration is inclined to do it in such a reckless, ill-conceived and possibly disastrous manner that, under these circumstances, it is better not to do it at all?
This is a question I’ve recently been asking myself. And I don’t find it easy to answer.
There are many problems in how the administration is approaching this. My chief worry is how they would handle the aftermath, specifically the nation-building. Everyone who’s thought this through believes that success will require a long-term committment of a robust and quite American peace-keeping force. The phrase peace-keeping really doesn’t quite do it justice. What you’re talking about is really an army of occupation and reconstruction — more on the order of post-war Germany or Japan, than Bosnia or Kosovo. Ideally a substantial number of these troops would come from NATO and other well-situated Muslim countries. But a dominant US presence would be required to make the whole thing work.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to suppose that the Bush administration has the stomach for an operation of such scope or duration. Very difficult. In what has to be one of the best — perhaps the best — piece written on the Iraq questoin, Fareed Zakaria makes the point eloquently. “The administrationâs actions in Afghanistan are not an encouraging sign, where an ideal, moderate, pro-Western leader, Hamid Karzai, is being slowly destroyed largely because the Pentagon will not extend security protection outside Kabul.” If the administration won’t deign to nation-build in Afghanistan, where it could be done with little expense in lives or treasure, how likely would it be to do so in post-war Iraq where it would be expensive by almost every measure? The question answers itself.
Such quibbles can easily become the cavils of choice for those who don’t quite want to be against an Iraq war but don’t really want to support one either. But for those who do support the idea, the Bush administration’s approach is a big problem.