Fight first, think later bad policy

August 20, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- A remarkable news article from Gaza appeared in the Washington Post last week, and it deserved more attention than it got.

The article reported that for the past month, the 12 main Palestinian factions had been holding secret talks to determine the "ground rules for their uprising against Israel, trying to agree on such fundamental issues as why they are fighting, what they need to end the conflict and whether suicide bombings are a legitimate weapon."

Let me repeat that in case you missed it: Two years into the Palestinian uprising, Palestinian factions were meeting to determine why they are fighting and whether their means are legitimate.

I can't say I'm surprised. From the moment this uprising began, I, and others, argued that it was a reckless, pointless, foolish adventure. Why? Because at the time, the Palestinians had before them on the table a credible diplomatic alternative to war -- a peace offer from the United States and Israel that would have satisfied the vast majority of their aspirations for statehood.

Oh, yes, Palestinian spokesmen, and their chorus in the Western diplomatic corps and media, would tell you things like this: The U.S. offer wasn't for 96 percent of the West Bank, it was for only 90 percent (not true), or the U.S. and Israeli proposals did not offer the Palestinians a contiguous state in the West Bank, but just a collection of "Bantustans" (not true).

But even if the opening U.S. and Israeli offers were as insufficient as the Palestinians claim, they never justified this ruinous war.

A Palestinian peace overture to improve those offers would have gotten them so much more and spared so much pain.

But the Arab and European "friends" of the Palestinians, instead of confronting them on this issue, became their apologists and enablers, telling us why the Palestinians' "desperation" had led them to suicide bombing.

It was their enabling that helped produce this situation in which the Palestinians, two years into a disastrous war, are meeting to decide what it is about.

And where was Yasser Arafat's leadership? Resting as usual on his motto: "It doesn't matter where my people want to go, even if it's into a ditch. All that matters is that I get to drive."

But there is a message in this bottle for America, too.

It's the first rule of warfare: Never launch a war that you can't explain to your people and the world on a bumper sticker. If it requires an explanation from a Middle East expert on CNN, you're on the wrong track.

Attention President Bush: What is your bumper sticker for justifying war with Iraq?

I've heard a lot of different ones lately: We need to pre-emptively attack before Saddam Hussein deploys weapons of mass destruction. We need to change the Iraqi regime to give birth to democracy in Iraq and the wider Arab world. We need to eliminate Mr. Hussein because he is evil and may have been behind the 9/11 attacks. We need to punish Mr. Hussein for not living up to the U.N. inspection resolutions.

All of these are legitimate rationales, but each would require a different U.S. military and diplomatic strategy.

If the Bush team is serious about Iraq, it needs to zero in on one clear objective, produce a tightly focused war plan around it and then sell it -- with a simple bumper sticker -- to America and the world.

If the Bush administration's different factions -- which are as divided as the Palestinians' -- can't do that in advance, they shouldn't move.

When you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there -- just ask the Palestinians. But when you're talking about an unprovoked war to dismantle a government half a world away, any road just won't do. You need a clearly focused end, means and rationale.

We certainly don't want to pick up a newspaper two years from now and read that there was just a heated meeting of Bush advisers about what the war in Iraq was supposed to be about.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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