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    New York Times

    September 7, 2003

    Why Are We In Iraq? (And Liberia? And Afghanistan?)


    n the back alleys of Iraq, the soldiers from the 101st Airborne and First Armored Divisions are hot, dirty and scared. They want to go home, but instead they're pinned down, fighting off hit-and-run attacks and trying to stop sabotage on pipelines, water mains and electric grids. They were told they would be greeted as liberators, but now, many months later, they are an army of occupation, trying to save the reputation of a president who never told them -- did he know himself? -- what they were getting into. The Muslim fighters rushing to join the remnants of Saddam Hussein's loyalists in a guerrilla war to reclaim Iraq have understood all along what the war has been about -- that it was never simply a matter of preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction; rather, it was about consolidating American power in the Arab world. Some in the administration no doubt understood this, too, though no one took the trouble to explain all their reasons for going to war to the American people or, for that matter, the rest of the world.

    But now we know. Iraq may become for America what Afghanistan became for the Soviet empire: the place where its fight against Islamic jihad will be won or lost. Nor is the United States the only target. The suicide bomb that killed Sergio Vieira de Mello and decimated his team has drawn the United Nations into the vortex. The United Nations came to Baghdad to give American nation-building a patina of legitimacy. Now the world body has been targeted as an accomplice of occupation. If the United States fails in Iraq, so will the United Nations.

    To see what is really unfolding in Iraq, we need to place it in the long history of American overseas interventions. It is worth remembering, for example, that when American soldiers have occupied countries before, for example Japan and Germany, the story started out much the same: not enough food, not enough electricity, not enough law and order (and, in Germany, ragtag Nazi fighters). And if this history is part of what drove us into Iraq, what doctrine, if any, has determined when and where Americans are sent to fight? Before the United States sends troops to any future front -- Syria? North Korea? Iran? -- it is crucial to ask: What does the history of American intervention teach us to hope and to fear? And how might the United States devise a coherent strategy of engagement suited for the perils -- and possibilities -- of the 21st century?

    From the very beginning, the American republic has never shrunk from foreign wars. A recent Congressional study shows that there has scarcely been a year since its founding that American soldiers haven't been overseas ''from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,'' chasing pirates, punishing bandits, pulling American citizens out of harm's way, intervening in civil wars, stopping massacres, overturning regimes deemed (fairly or not) unfriendly and exporting democracy. American foreign policy largely consists of doctrines about when and where to intervene in other people's countries. In 1823, James Monroe committed the United States -- militarily, if it came to that -- to keeping foreign colonial powers out of the entire Western Hemisphere. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt added a corollary giving the United States the right to send in troops when any of its Latin American neighbors engaged in ''flagrant wrongdoing.'' Most Latin Americans, then and now, took that to mean that the United States would topple any government in the hemisphere that acted against American interests. Early in the last century, American troops went ashore to set up governments in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and chased Pancho Villa around Mexico. And this kind of intervention wasn't just confined to pushing around Latin Americans. Twelve thousand troops were sent to support the White armies fighting the Communists in the Russian Civil War that began in 1918. In the 1920's, during the civil war in China, there were 6,000 American soldiers ashore and a further 44 naval vessels in the China Sea protecting American interests. (Neither venture was much of a success. Both Russia and China eventually went Communist.)

    Despite George Washington's call to avoid foreign entanglements and John Quincy Adams's plea that America should abjure slaying monsters abroad, splendid isolation has never proved to be a convincing foreign policy for Americans. First in 1917 and then again in 1941, American presidents thought they could keep America out of Europe's wars only to discover that isolation was not an option for a country wanting to be taken seriously as a world power -- which, from the beginning, is precisely what America desired. Intervention required huge sacrifice -- the haunting American graveyards in France are proof of this -- but American soldiers helped save Europe from dictatorship, and their hard fighting turned America into the most powerful nation on earth.

    Americans may think that their troops used to stay at home and that intervention and nation-building used to be rare. In fact, regime change is as old a story in American foreign policy, as is unilateralism. Until the United Nations came along in 1945, the United States did all this intervening without asking anyone's permission. But after watching America be dragged into world war because the League of Nations had been so weak, Franklin Roosevelt decided to back the creation of a muscular world body. He was even willing to hand over some authority over interventions to the United Nations Security Council, leaving it to the council to decide which threats to international peace and security gave states the right to send in military force. Cold-war deadlock on the council, however, frustrated the Roosevelt dream. Besides, a substantial body of American opinion has always questioned why the United States should ask the United Nations' permission to use force abroad.

    After World War II, the boys may have wanted to come home, but Truman kept American soldiers on guard around the world to defend free governments from Communist overthrow. This meant shoring up the Greeks in 1947 and sending troops to prevent South Korea from going under in 1950. But anti-Communism had its limits. It did not mean going to the aid of the Hungarians when they rose up against Soviet domination in 1956. When the Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest, Eisenhower turned a deaf ear as the Hungarians begged over the airwaves for American help. Ike decided that intervention that risked conflict -- perhaps nuclear conflict -- with a great power was not worth the candle.

    Never pick on someone your own size, which in our time means someone with nuclear weapons: this has been Rule No.1 of intervention since the end of the Second World War. Minor rogues, would-be tough guys like Saddam Hussein, perhaps, but never someone who can actually deliver a nuclear bomb. (We are about to see whether this rule holds with regard to North Korea.) Even the enormous American intervention in Vietnam took great care to avoid a direct clash with Russia and China.

    When Lyndon Johnson sent half a million troops to Vietnam, he thought he was containing Communism in Asia (without threatening either the Chinese or Russian regimes that were financing North Vietnam's campaign). Johnson never realized his ultimate enemy was Vietnamese nationalism. The 58,000 names carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington are the measure of Johnson's mistake. Rule No.2 of American intervention evolved out of Vietnam: Never fight someone who is more willing to die than you are. (This is the rule now being tested by the hit-and-run attackers and suicide bombers in Iraq.) The Vietnam veterans who came to command the American military -- led by Colin Powell -- also settled on Rule No.3, which remains much debated: Never intervene except with overwhelming force in defense of a vital national interest. (Thus this summer's gingerly approach to Liberia.)

    But what has been the national interest once the cold war ended and the threat of a growing Communist empire evaporated? No clear national interest has emerged. No clear conversation about the national interest has emerged. Policy -- if one can even speak of policy -- has seemed to be mostly the prisoner of interventionist lobbies with access to the indignation machine of the modern media. America in the 1990's intervened to oust an invader (the first gulf war), to stop civil war (Bosnia), to stop ethnic cleansing (Kosovo), to feed the starving (Somalia) and to prevent a country from falling apart (Macedonia). America also dithered on the sidelines and watched 800,000 people die in three awful months in Rwanda, when airstrikes against the government sponsors of the genocide, coupled with reinforcement of the United Nations troops on the ground, might have stopped the horror. Rule No.4: Never use force except as a last resort (sometimes turned into an alibi for doing nothing).

    During the Clinton years, there were presidential directives that sought to define exactly what the Clinton doctrine on intervention might be. But no doctrine was ever arrived at. There was a guiding principle: reluctance to shed American blood. Thus, Rule No.5 in American interventions: When force is used as a last resort, avoid American casualties. Since the Clinton administration's interventions were not of necessity to protect the national interest -- whatever that was at the time -- but matters of choice, this made a certain amount of sense, at least in terms of domestic politics.

    The problem with Rule No.5 is that it made force protection as important as mission accomplishment and may have sent the wrong signal to the enemy. By cutting and running after the botched intervention in Somalia in 1993, for instance, Clinton might have led Osama bin Laden to believe that Americans lacked the stomach for a fight. Ten years later, we may still be paying the price for that mistake.

    By the end of the 1990's, conservative commentators were complaining that Clinton's intervention doctrine, such as it was, had lost touch with national interest and had degenerated into social work. The Bush campaign vowed that the 101st Airborne wouldn't be wasted escorting foreign children to school and promised to bring the boys home from Bosnia (they remain.) As far as the Bush administration was concerned, too much intervention, where too little was at stake, was blunting the purpose of the military, which was to ''fight and win the nation's wars.'' Of course, at the time he became president, the nation had no wars, and none loomed on the horizon.

    Then came Sept.11 -- and then came first Afghanistan and then Iraq. These two reversed Rule No.4. (Only use force as a last resort.) Now the Bush administration was committing itself to use force as a first resort. But the Bush doctrine on intervention is no clearer than Clinton's. The Bush administration is committed to absolute military pre-eminence, but does anyone think that Clinton's military was less determined to remain the single -- and overwhelming -- superpower? The Bush doctrine is also burdened with contradiction. The president took office ruling out humanitarian interventions, yet marines did (finally) go ashore in war-torn Liberia. During the 2000 campaign, George Bush ruled out intervention in the cause of nation-building, only to find himself staking his presidency on the outcome of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having called for a focused intervention strategy, he has proclaimed a war on terror that never clearly defines terrorism; never differentiates among terrorist organizations as to which explicitly threaten American interests and which do not; and never has settled on which states supporting or harboring terrorists are targets of American intervention. An administration whose supposed watchword is self-discipline regularly leaks to the press, for example, that its intervention list might include Syria or Iran -- or might not, depending on the day of the week you ask. The administration, purposefully or not, routinely conflates terrorism and the nuclear threat from rogue nations. These are threats of a profoundly different order and magnitude. Finally, the administration promises swift and decisive interventions that will lead to victory. But as Afghanistan shows (and Iraq is beginning to show), this expectation is deluded. Taking down the state that sheltered Osama bin Laden was easy; shutting down Al Qaeda has proved frustratingly difficult. Interventions don't end when the last big battle is won. In a war on terror, containing rather than defeating the enemy is the most you can hope for. Where is the doctrine acknowledging that truth?

    The Bush administration, as no administration before it, has embraced ''pre-emption.'' It's a strategy of sorts, but hardly a doctrine. Where is the definition of when pre-emption might actually be justified? The angry postwar debate about whether the American public (and the British public, too) were duped into the Iraq war is about much more than whether intelligence estimates were ''sexed up'' to make the threat from Hussein seem more compelling. It is about what level of threat warrants pre-emptive use of force. Almost 20 years ago, George P. Shultz, as Reagan's secretary of state, gave a speech warning that America would have to make pre-emptive intervention against terrorist threats on the basis of evidence that would be less than clear. Since Shultz, no one has clarified how intervention decisions are to be made when intelligence is, as it is bound to be, uncertain. As Paul Wolfowitz, the Bush administration's deputy secretary of defense, has candidly acknowledged, the intelligence evidence used to justify force in Iraq was ''murky.'' If so, the American people should have been told just that. Instead, they were told that intervention was necessary to meet a real and imminent threat. Now the line seems to be that the war wasn't much of an act of pre-emption at all, but rather a crusade to get rid of an odious regime. But this then makes it a war of choice -- and the Bush administration came to power vowing not to fight those. At the moment, the United States is fighting wars in two countries with no clear policy of intervention, no clear end in sight and no clear understanding among Americans of what their nation has gotten itself into.

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