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Lessons From the Front

Later this month, America and the world will mark the third anniversary of our nation’s invasion of Iraq. It is a sobering moment, and an appropriate time to take stock.

If things had gone according to plan, Islamist terrorism would now be on the wane, the Middle East would be a more stable place, the specter of nuclear terror would be gone from our daily nightmares, and Americans would feel safer and more at peace with the world than they did three years ago. The Bush administration would be able to look back on a record of promises fulfilled and expect to reap the rewards of gratitude at home and abroad for its audacious strategy.

Of course, things did not go as planned. They went staggeringly, spectacularly wrong. Instead of feeling safer, Americans have experienced a precipitous decline in their sense of security and global stability under the stewardship of President Bush, beggaring the worst predictions of even the harshest of Bush critics. Iraq, which was supposed to be the proving ground for our newer, safer world, appears to be spinning into chaos. Our television screens show almost daily scenes of angry Muslim mobs calling for mayhem. Our government seems clueless to handle even the most elementary procedures of port security or emergency preparedness. Its audacious strategy seems merely reckless.

Back in the optimistic Clinton years, conservative scolds insisted on reminding us that the world is “a dangerous place,” as Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, told a cheering crowd of pro-Israel activists at the 1997 conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The warning seemed necessary then, because the world didn’t look that dangerous.

Well, it sure looks dangerous now. The question is, are we worse off than we were before? Or do we just see things more clearly?

This week, as if in preparation for the upcoming anniversary, America and the world were treated to no fewer than three important new reports on the results of the Iraq War and its impact on the security and stability of Iraq, the Middle East and the global community. The reports — an assessment for the Senate by America’s top intelligence chiefs, a global opinion survey conducted by BBC and an Iraqi government status report — add up to a deeply alarming picture, and they go a long way toward answering our question. We are worse off.

Of the three reports, the least overtly dramatic was the statement issued February 28 by the Iraqi Cabinet, reporting a total of 379 Iraqis dead in sectarian violence in the week since the destruction of the Shi’a shrine in Samarra on February 22. The statement was accompanied by a defiant vow from the Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, that sectarian violence would not be permitted to derail Iraq’s progress toward stable government. The combination of the prime minister’s statement and the accounting of deaths — a rarity for Iraq, which rarely offers death totals — seemed intended to counter a Washington Post report of 1,300 deaths during that bloody week. More broadly, they were meant to blunt the growing sense in America that events in Iraq have spun out of control, that the country is sliding into all-out civil war. Things, the Iraqi leaders tried to say, are not as bad as they look. Within moments after they spoke, another 23 Iraqis were killed in a bombing in Baghdad, and 32 more the next morning, making a mockery of the prime minister’s confidence.

Halfway around the globe that same day, America’s two top intelligence officials, the national intelligence director, John Negroponte, and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Maples, were making a joint appearance before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats. Their main theme, put bluntly, is that things are as bad as they look.

Iraq, Negroponte told the senators, is not under control. Iraq runs a very significant risk of sliding into chaos and civil war, he said. If it does, it could have “catastrophic” consequences, becoming a regional conflagration that brings in Saudi Arabia and Jordan on the Sunni side and Iran on the Shi’ite side. He said that he sees “some progress” toward stability in Iraq and that America “can win” there, but he didn’t say it was certain or likely.

Following Negroponte, Maples gave an equally downbeat report on conditions in Afghanistan. He said that violence by the Taliban and other insurgent groups had increased 20% in the past year. “Insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001,” he said, and things will continue heating up at least through the spring. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

How did all this happen? Historians may argue the point for generations, but the world community appears to have made up its mind. A global survey released this week by the British Broadcasting Corporation found that three-fifths of those questioned — a stunning 42,000 respondents in 35 countries — believe that the terrorist threat has increased around the world as a result of the Iraq War. Only 12% believe the threat has decreased. A solid majority in 21 of the 35 countries (and a 45%-to-36% plurality worldwide) now believe it was a mistake to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Why would we not want to remove Saddam? We knew he was a tyrant who brutalized his people and wanted to menace his neighbors. But that was not why we invaded. We invaded because America had been attacked by terrorists in September 2001, because Saddam supported terrorists, because we feared that his attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction escalated the threat intolerably, and because we believed that toppling the worst tyrant in the Middle East might push the region toward democracy and away from extremism. Sound reasoning, so it seemed.

Now we know differently. We know that Saddam’s regime did not constitute a direct threat to the United States, did not possess weapons of mass destruction or the capacity to develop them, and had no meaningful contact with the Islamist terrorist network that attacked us on September 11. We also know that much of that information was available to our leaders before they decided to invade Iraq, but that they chose to overlook it because they wanted to believe something else. We know — as this newspaper warned just before the invasion — that toppling Saddam could and did turn the Islamic Republic of Iran into an unchallenged regional superpower and uncorked a genuine nuclear threat, for which we have no answers.

We also know, or we should know, that audacity and bluster do not constitute a foreign policy. Calling an enemy names will not necessarily prevent him from opening fire. Yelling about a problem is not the same thing as solving it. Starting a war is not the same thing as winning it.

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