November 16, 2003

Editorial: Iraq Goes Sour

New York Times

The American involvement with Iraq appears to have turned a corner. The Bush administration's old game plan — drafting a constitution, followed by elections, followed by American withdrawal — has been replaced by a new timetable. It's a bit cynical to say that the plan is to toss the whole hot potato to whatever Iraqis are willing to grab it. But the White House thinking is veering close.

President Bush gambled vast amounts of American money, influence and American and Iraqi lives on the theory that toppling Saddam Hussein would make the world safer and make the Mideast a more stable and democratic region. Obviously, the Iraqi people are better off without a vicious tyrant in power. But if the American forces leave prematurely, the country will wind up vulnerable to another dictator and possibly more of a threat to the world than it was before. Yet the administration is giving the impression of having one foot out the door, while doggedly refusing to take the only realistic next step — asking the United Nations to take over the nation-building.

Blind Intelligence

It's useful, at this point, to look back and see how we got here. Most Americans, polls told us, were eager to see Saddam Hussein deposed because they believed he was somehow connected to Sept. 11. The president knew that was not the case, as he acknowledged long after the invasion. But the White House, along with many officials of the Clinton administration, did believe that Saddam Hussein had massive supplies of biological and chemical weapons, and that he was attempting to make Iraq a nuclear power. That was what created a sense of urgency about the invasion.

How did they wind up at what now appears to be a totally incorrect conclusion about Iraq's weapons programs? The Central Intelligence Agency, we now realize, had no idea of what was going on inside Iraq. The country had been virtually shut off since 1998, when President Clinton ordered renewed bombing and weapons inspectors withdrew. The C.I.A.'s estimates were basically worst-case scenarios of what the Hussein regime might have been up to in the interim. That was apparently a mistake, if an understandable one.

But the assumptions Mr. Bush shared with the American people seem to have been hyped further. That was at least in part because of pressure from the Pentagon, where influential aides to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had their own sources of information, most notably Iraqi exiles. The best known was Ahmad Chalabi, now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. After the American forces were in Iraq, Mr. Chalabi claimed for a while that their failure to find the weapons was due to the refusal of American officials to heed his tips about where they were.

The Will to Invade

The people who believed that Iraq was armed to the teeth with illegal weapons also based that opinion on simple logic. If Saddam Hussein did not have them, surely he would have cooperated fully with weapons inspectors rather than allow his country to be invaded. The very fact that he never backed down seemed to be proof he had something terrible to hide. But the Bush administration knew that as the countdown to invasion ticked away, Iraq had reached out through middlemen with an offer to allow not just full inspections, but inspections by American troops. It was an offer that might, in the end, have turned out to be meaningless. But the fact that the administration chose not to pursue it is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that the White House regarded the run-up to the war not as a time for trying to avoid conflict, but as a time for public relations moves meant to give the American people the impression that there was no way out.

The Failure to Plan

Most experts, in and out of government, believed that the American military could quickly defeat the Iraqis. But there were far fewer who thought that once the Hussein government had been toppled it would be easy to make Iraq secure, get the country back on its feet and establish a democratic successor. The Bush administration had even less reason to make that conclusion, since the State Department's own internal studies, done in preparation for the attack, outlined the obvious pitfalls. Vice President Dick Cheney had listed some of the same perils in 1991 when he defended the decision not to march on to Baghdad during the first gulf war. (American troops, he opined, would find themselves in a "quagmire.")

What, then, caused the administration to invade with so little preparation for what would happen after the fighting, and so much confidence that the Iraqis could quickly take the reins of power? Once again, it seems most likely that the Defense Department and the president's security advisers believed the reassurances of Mr. Chalabi and the other Iraqi exiles. The administration seems to have placed its bets on information given by the very people who had the most to gain from the invasion.

The Governing Council

Mr. Chalabi, who has lived outside Iraq for much of his life, is now a member of the Governing Council, a group of leaders handpicked by the American government. So far, the council has done little but squabble internally and complain about American slights. It has made virtually no progress in preparing a new Iraqi constitution. In a nation where the overriding danger for the future is conflict among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, it has failed to show any aptitude for bridging those gaps even within its own ranks.

If the administration winds up turning Iraq over to the council in anything like its current form, it seems wildly unlikely that the next government will be able to survive for any period of time without civil war, or the same kind of brutality that caused the world to recoil from Saddam Hussein. The Middle East would wind up an even less stable place than it is now. The war on terror would be far more difficult to fight. Iraq, which was probably not a major haven for international terrorists before the invasion, could easily turn into one.

The Last, Best Hope

The only real chance for a peaceful future for Iraq lies in a government made up of representatives of all the critical factions, working together to resolve problems fairly and peacefully. The only way to get leaders with the skills to accomplish that supremely difficult task is to train them. The best training is the very process of writing the constitution that the Bush administration now rejects as too time-consuming.

Iraqis are growing weary of American occupation and the White House argues that they will not tolerate the current situation long enough for a constitution to be prepared. That is the precise reason that the job should be turned over to the United Nations. The United Nations has far more international experience, credibility and reputation for neutrality in these matters than the United States does. There is certainly no guarantee it can succeed. There is only the certainty that the Bush administration, which has made all the wrong bets so far, does not have any better options.