Changes Needed After the War

Now that the United States is at war with Saddam Hussein, the hard questions that have divided Americans over the past several months have been replaced with an easy one: Which side are you on? However wrong and unnecessary, the President’s decision is irrevocable-and we can only hope for the coalition’s victory at the smallest cost in human life on both sides. The destruction of the Iraqi dictatorship should relieve the suffering of that nation’s long-oppressed people, even if the war’s proponents have exaggerated the potential benefits to global and regional security.

Civilian pundits usually have little useful strategic or tactical advice for seasoned generals, who have lately had enough trouble dealing with the arrogant suits running the Pentagon. Within days or weeks, the U.S.-led coalition will surely defeat the Iraqi military-a force that is currently demonstrating what little threat it has posed, to its neighbors or anyone else outside Iraq’s borders, since the first Gulf War. As in any armed conflict, however, the superior force can choose between better and worse ways to consolidate its triumph.

So far, the diplomatic and military planning by the Bush administration have been uninspiring at best. The White House’s incompetence has seriously damaged American prestige and alliances. And there are few signs that the administration understands how to avoid future mistakes.

The focus on minimizing civilian casualties and providing adequate humanitarian assistance must be maintained, for reasons both moral and political. The propaganda value of this war for Al Qaeda in the Muslim nations was an important reason to prefer diplomacy and inspections. Every dead Iraqi child is a mark against us as well as a video advertisement for the Islamist terrorists who are our real enemies. The firing of cluster weapons into the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah and the bombing of a bus bound for Syria are the kinds of actions that could make the “war against terrorism” impossible to win.

Severe rifts between the U.S. and the international community, in Europe and elsewhere, must be mended rather than exacerbated. When Donald Rumsfeld claims that the “coalition of the willing” is “larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991,” he reveals a screwy view of global reality. Why the White House chose this moment to publicize a dispute with the Russian government over alleged Iraqi defense sales is incomprehensible.

So is the administration’s continuing hostility towards Germany, which has provided great assistance to allied efforts in Afghanistan despite its disagreements with U.S. foreign policy. We need Russian cooperation to safeguard nuclear materials and other deadly weapons; we need German (and French and Pakistani) assistance against Al Qaeda.

The Islamist threat will not recede in the wake of this war, but our ability to fight terror may be compromised if we don’t reassure allies about our intentions.

Providing such reassurance means demonstrating that the war in Iraq is not a neocolonial or neo-imperialist project. Our government must make that point to the Iraqis themselves as well as to the rest of the world. The religious and political leaders of the Shia Iraqis have warned that prolonged occupation under an American military governor will spark an armed rebellion.

The Kurds will likewise become restive if they’re excluded from power for long (or if we permit the Turks to interfere with their legitimate aspirations for an autonomous federation).

A popular representative government must be established as rapidly as possible-under the auspices of the United Nations rather than the Pentagon.

For the same reasons, profiteering by American corporations such as Halliburton, which has already been awarded a fat contract, should be curtailed. It doesn’t look so good when the first deal goes to a company that is still paying a million or so a year in “deferred compensation” to Vice President Dick Cheney. The same principle applies to the oil concessions being eyed by ExxonMobil, Chevron and the rest of the usual suspects. (And Bush adviser Richard Perle should give up his defense-related directorships and stock options, or resign as chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board.)

If this war can be plausibly portrayed as “blood for oil,” the political consequences will be disastrous for everyone but the profiteers. Multilateral institutions, not Republican donor lists, must guide Iraq’s reconstruction and the distribution of spoils.

Finally, the penchant for permanent war among the utopian thinkers in the Pentagon and the neo-conservative right ought to be suppressed by the President himself. As this is written, the human and financial costs of deposing Saddam appear to be far greater than the optimistic estimates provided by those right-wing worthies. Undaunted and always safe from harm’s way, they look forward to further adventures in Iran, Syria and perhaps China someday. Their utopian notion of a world dominated by a benign American superpower is an illusion that will leave us isolated and hated.