“The person who is in charge is me,” said President Bush of his Iraq policy-and rightly so. Whenever foreign affairs intersects warmaking, the President rules. If through inattention or weakness, he allows policy to be made by ambitious underlings, he is still responsible for creating the conditions that allowed their ambition to flourish. One way or another, a wartime President gets what he deserves. Last week, President Bush set up an Iraq Stabilization Group to be run by his National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, a shuffle of the power chart designed to make the orders flow more smoothly, and he won $87 billion from Congress, give or take a coerced loan or two from Iraq, to spend on occupation and reconstruction. He has the tools; now let him finish the job.
What mistakes has he made so far in waging the Terror War? What mistakes, that is, from the point of view of the war’s supporters? We know what “Osama bin Laden” thinks (I put the name in quotation marks because I no more believe Al-Jazeera’s attribution of “his” words than I believe a medium at a séance when he says he has called up someone’s dead mother). “Bin Laden,” on “his” latest tape, said we had fallen into a quagmire. A few more lines like that and “he” could enter the Democratic Presidential campaign, though I doubt an Islamist would appear on the same platform as a Jew, an unveiled woman and a Christian cleric.
A few of Mr. Bush’s mistakes were made in the months after 9/11. No one was fired at the C.I.A. or the F.B.I. The Air Force Academy gets in more hot water from rape scandals than our national-security agencies did from the surprise murder of 3,000 Americans. The Bush administration rejected ethnic and religious profiling-i.e., looking for likely suspects. Because of our national guilt over slavery and Jim Crow, we make little old ladies take off their shoes in airports and employ Army chaplains who studied Islam in Syria.
One more subtle early failure was Mr. Bush’s unwillingness to pile on Ken Lay of Enron. Every war involves a certain amount of (hopefully benign) fascism, of all classes pulling together for the good of the nation. Mr. Lay made an inviting target-rich, Texan and egregious. Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt would have scented the opportunity immediately and given Mr. Lay holy hell. Mr. Bush missed it.
One of President Bush’s conceptual failures was highlighted by “bin Laden” in his recent tape. The jihadi ventriloquist said that America was now being forced to rely on hired mercenaries in Iraq. He was referring to the soldiers we have encouraged to join the Anglo-American coalition from Poland and other countries, and the soldiers we hope to welcome soon from Turkey. It is always good to have allies. It is especially good to see a country as buffeted by the 20th century as Poland playing a role in the world, and a country that is in the gunsights of Islamism, like secular Turkey, taking some responsibility.
Better than all of this was the fact that we could win in Iraq with such lean resources. Our military today is a prodigy of efficiency and imagination. The bloat and confusion of the McNamara years, of sitting in West Germany and sweating and dying in Vietnam, are long past. But we need more on tap. Even assuming that the occupation of Iraq is adequately staffed, could we handle a sudden turn for the worse in North Korea, or the need for hot pursuit into Syria? We have been fighting a war on a peacetime budget. Maybe Mr. Bush should have asked for $187 billion two years ago.
Another conceptual failure has been the lack of a sustained information campaign. Maybe Mr. Bush is doing as well as he can domestically. His approval ratings have fallen from their sky-high 90 percent levels. But surely this was inevitable, and it was wise on his part to accept it. Maybe he was equally wise to expect that criticism comes in cycles, and to let the anti-warriors have their say in the summer months and save his own efforts for the fall.
But in the world at large, we seem to be an absence. The Muslim world is at a crossroads, even as we are. Is it to be led by Saudi-funded apocalypse-mongers? Do secularists, mystics or Shiites have no voice? We cannot take part in any such debate, but we can appeal to the debaters. The supposedly independent Al-Jazeera is a conveyor belt for terrorist propaganda. Shouldn’t there be American programming to counter it in Arabic, Urdu and Malay?
We don’t do enough to cherry-pick European allies. The governments of Spain and Italy have sided with us, over considerable domestic opposition. Can’t we appeal to opposition in the Axis of Weasel? Not every German and Frenchman is a dolt or an immoralist. What do we pay our diplomats for, if not to take our case on the tube?
To do that, we have to know what case we’re making. We fight for two reasons: first, to make America and the world safer from terrorism-that is, mass murder disguised as religion or politics. We also fight for liberation-to depose and constrain the despots and theocrats that have unleashed this scourge upon us. If people vote in Tikrit and women read in Kabul, it helps us.
Some other Bush failings may not be failings at all. Item: He should have foreseen the postwar disorder in Iraq. Everyone is so brilliant. Back in February, they were saying he should foresee chemical attacks on our troops and battles like Stalingrad. All we know about shit is that it happens, and it always surprises us. Item: Mr. Bush should move more forcefully against Iran and/or Saudi Arabia. This criticism tempts me, but perhaps he is moving forcefully. Iraq, as the weakest noxious state, was the target of opportunity. Behind the scenes, we may be helping Iran liberate itself, and the Saudi royal family see that the handwriting is on the wall.