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Why They Call It Hell

War is an ugly, unpredictable affair. But certain things are utterly predictable, most of all this: Things go wrong. America’s plan for a quick victory, silencing the nay-sayers and shocking the broader Middle East into compliance, appears to have been an illusion. Now is the time to rethink. After the war is won we will need European and world support to rebuild. Now is the time to go back to our allies, and to the United Nations, and invite them to help prepare for the Day After.

We need not apologize. Our nation does face a threat from a shadowy alliance of violent extremists with deep roots in the Islamic Middle East. The reality of that threat, and of our right to respond, is acknowledged around the world. That was shown in the worldwide support for our campaign in Afghanistan.

Many have rightly questioned the administration’s war plans, not because the threat wasn’t real, but because we were moving against the wrong target at the wrong time and without the right coalition of allies behind us. Nonetheless, the decision was taken. Now we are at war, and we have no choice but to win it. Anything less would be seen around the world as a victory for those very real enemies.

It’s predictable, too, that war kills. The accidental bombings of Syrian and Jordanian civilians fleeing for the border, the downing of British airmen by American Patriot missiles, the urgent advance halted by blinding sandstorms — these are the stuff of war. That’s why they call it hell. In the 1991 Gulf war, fully 35 of the 148 American dead, or nearly one-fourth, were killed by friendly fire.

This must sadden us but it should not surprise or unduly alarm us, nor should it change our view of the war’s larger objectives.

What should alarm us is the extent to which this war’s setbacks reflect not the normal fog of war but fundamental miscalculations by the administration in planning for this war.

Nothing illustrates the miscalculation and its impact more starkly than the fate of the five American POWs paraded on Iraqi television as trophies of war last weekend, during the campaign’s early hours. The five were part of a maintenance convoy that fell into an Iraqi ambush after taking a wrong turn near the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya. The rest of the convoy escaped, but one vehicle was trapped, apparently because its crew didn’t understand basic evasion tactics for avoiding capture in hostile territory. It seems such tactics are taught to our troops as part of routine training, but supply and maintenance personnel routinely skip those lessons because they don’t expect to need them. Maintenance troops are not supposed to be in hostile territory. They’re supposed to operate behind the lines, providing backup to the combat units at the front.

The trouble is that this war has no front. Our war strategy was built around a lightning dash to Baghdad to take out the Iraqi leadership, swinging around the Iraqi units along the way rather than confronting them and securing the territory in between. The unintended result was that the front was everywhere, and our supply lines were stretched through vast expanses of what remained in effect hostile territory. Our troops were not prepared for this.

And why did we decide on such a strategy? For two reasons: We thought we had to, and we thought we could. Both assumptions proved wrong.

We thought we could because we expected Iraqi troops, faced with overwhelming American force, to collapse like a house of cards. We overestimated Iraqis’ eagerness to be rid of Saddam Hussein at any cost. We underestimated their willingness to fight for their homeland against a foreign invader. We overlooked the vulnerability of support troops operating along vastly overextended supply lines in unsecured territory. We forgot about the weather.

We thought we had to because we were fighting virtually alone. A quick victory in Baghdad, it was thought, would make Iraqi regime change a fait accompli and silence the opposition before it had time to gather steam. International opposition, given a chance to mobilize, could undercut our support among wavering allies. Already, opposition in Turkey had forced us to drop plans for a drive on Baghdad from the north, where the lines would have been shorter. That put more pressure on our troops in the south. Bad diplomacy cost lives. Given time, other coalition partners could weaken and the costs could rise.

The administration claims it leads a “coalition of the willing” numbering 35 nations with a combined population of more than 1 billion. That’s a bit of a fudge. In fact, those 35 represent the sum total of nations that do not openly oppose us. The fact is that we are fighting a war in the face of overwhelming international opposition.

Saddam would like us to think that the worldwide majority opposing the American campaign is a majority that supports him. That’s a cynical lie. He has no friends. We have many. But our friends question our judgment.

All of these miscalculations, as our European allies rightly point out, stem from overconfidence — what the continental press calls “cowboy swagger,” what the ancient Greeks called hubris. Ironically, the conservative intellectuals who have for so long denounced liberal eagerness to remake the world fell into the very trap they had warned against. They have launched a vast experiment in social engineering that is far beyond America’s capacity to carry out.

Ironically, too, the very hawks who so confidently warned against misreading “the Arab mind” over the last generations fell into a trap of grievously misreading the Arab mind. Arabs, it turns out, will defend their homeland as fiercely as anyone. As Israel has repeatedly learned to its grief, Arabs do not welcome foreign troops. There may be flowers greeting you on entry, but the longer you stay, the more the anger will grow.

Now that we are in Iraq, we must finish the job — as quickly and cleanly as possible. When the job is done, however, we must get out. America cannot impose democracy on Iraq, much less the broader Middle East. On the contrary, an extended American stay will only add fuel to the violent terrorist rage that we set out to quell.

More than anything, what is needed now is a cover of international legitimacy and consensus for this enterprise we have launched. That means the U.N. As flawed and messy an institution as it is, it is indispensable as a framework for conferring legitimacy in this flawed and messy world of ours. It must be invited to take charge of Iraqi reconstruction.

As Britain’s courageous Prime Minister Blair declared this week, now is the time to mend fences — with our historic allies, the Western democracies, and with the U.N. We can win the war without them, but we cannot win the peace.

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