Even the most determinedly partisan critics of the Bush administration have been taken aback lately — dumbfounded is more like it — by the spectacular unraveling of the administration’s Iraq strategy. For all the doubts about the wisdom of the president’s plans, few of us thought they would collapse this utterly or this fast. Now that it’s happened, hardly anyone knows what to say.
Sure, there were naysayers warning all along that the president’s war plans were inadequately thought through. There were European leaders insisting that the rationales for war — chiefly Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs and links to terrorism — were not sufficiently proven. There were pundits who warned that going in without United Nations backing would weaken the war’s legitimacy in international eyes, experts who fretted that Iraqis would not necessarily rally to America as a liberator, scholars who predicted that an invasion might inflame rather than dampen worldwide Islamic rage against America. There were military strategists who questioned the timing and size of the American-led force. At the extremes, there were Bush-bashers who believed the entire enterprise was beyond the ken of a president they still considered a bumpkin.
Deep down, though, most of us figured the president and his advisers must have had some idea what they were doing. There was a presumption, rooted deep in our culture as a nation, that anyone smart enough to capture the reins of government must be smart enough to wield them.
Now that the American invasion has turned out to be a clueless blunder into a bottomless quagmire, there’s a natural temptation for critics to gloat. Bush sold himself to Americans after September 11 as the tough cop who would chase down the terrorists wherever they were hiding and restore the nation’s security and honor. It turns out his threats were not just empty but dangerous. Taking on Saddam didn’t intimidate terrorists everywhere but rather inflamed them, emboldened them and brought them pouring into Iraq. Now the terrorists are stronger than ever, and we’re stretched across the Middle East like sitting ducks. For those who still can’t think of Bush without picturing hanging chads and butterfly ballots, there’s a grim satisfaction in the president’s quandary.
But the quandary is not the president’s. It’s ours. We, the American nation, sent our troops into Iraq, like it or not. Those soldiers dying every day as the fighting continues are not Republicans or Democrats, neoconservatives or new-age liberals, but American soldiers. If Iraq is broken, we’re the ones who broke it. Now it’s up to us to fix it.
There are wrong ways to do that, such as continuing the arrogant, unilateralist path we’ve followed up to now. And there are right ways to do it, such as bringing in the U.N. to share power and getting serious about rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. We need to understand the elusive nature of terrorism and begin rebuilding the alliances that can isolate the terrorists and dry up their support bases. We need to accept the limits of power and the power of limits.
What isn’t an option is picking up and leaving, as if we could end the war by pretending there is no war. The forces threatening America today, whether in Baghdad or Bali, are the enemies not just of Republicans but of all Americans — and indeed, of the entire free world.