Do we really want this job?

April 18, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Standing in al-Firdos Square in Baghdad after the statue of Saddam Hussein came crashing down, Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Eby of the U.S. Marines was approached by Iraqis telling him U.S. troops should stay for as long as two years.

"I was thinking to myself, `I was hoping two hours,'" he told a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Eby is probably not the only American who is realizing that the task ahead is bigger and more open-ended than many of us had expected. Iraq is not like Grenada or Panama or even Afghanistan, where we moved in to depose an unfriendly government and then left the locals to take it from there. Iraq has become something bigger: an outpost of empire that will need our constant attention. It may be just the first of many.

After the Cold War ended, some people deeply missed the sense that America had a great and noble purpose, and they yearned to find a new one.

First, crusading conservatives tried to inflate our differences with China into Cold War II, but the Chinese were too busy chasing riches to be an adequate substitute for the Soviet menace.

Now the search has ended. By redefining the war on terrorism as a war against any nation anywhere that could conceivably pose a threat to us anytime in the next 500 years, and by throwing in a desire to spread democracy by the bayonet, President Bush has given America a grand mission in the world. And it's so ambitious that it could make the Cold War look like the Whiskey Rebellion.

The president and his aides have been loath to acknowledge the size of the burden we're shouldering in Iraq. But when you take over responsibility for running a shattered, strife-ridden nation the size of California, you can't expect the job to be quick, easy or cheap. It could take years, and it could cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

If Iraqis are determined to settle old scores, there is no telling what we'll have to do. Before long, the prevailing image of this war may not be statues falling but Iraqis looting palaces, torching buildings and exacting violent retribution on their enemies. Take a lot of Iraqis who hate one another and some who hate us, and you get rich possibilities for trouble.

Policeman of the world? Right now being policeman of Iraq looks like more than we can handle.

Americans traditionally know exactly what to do when foreign interventions go sour: leave. That's what we did in Lebanon, in Somalia and in Haiti. But this time, we've burned our boats. For the foreseeable future, Iraq's problems are our problems.

That may not sit well for long with the American people, if it means throwing away lives or money on foreigners who show no gratitude for our exertions. But it's fine with many of the administration's most fervent supporters, who think it's high time the United States set about remaking the world in its own image.

Conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza of the Hoover Institution cheers that "America has become an empire" and urges, "Let's have more of it." Max Boot, author of The Savage Wars of Peace, says, "I believe we need to use our awesome power for the good of the world. Not only to roll back aggression and stop the spread of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, but also to stop the most egregious human rights abuses."

Nation-building, scorned by conservatives during the Clinton administration, has become the favorite goal of Mr. Bush, Mr. Boot and many others on the right.

Toppling dictators and liberating nations scratches an itch that afflicts not just conservatives but many liberals: the desire for a collective purpose that gives our lives meaning and historical importance. Skeptics like me welcomed the end of the Cold War because it relieved the American people of a heavy burden, letting them live their own lives in peace. But those who worship military glory and activist government recoil at the idea that Americans might have nothing more important to worry about than their individual pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness, you may recall, was the idea of Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote, "I have the consolation to reflect that during the period of my administration, not a drop of the blood of a fellow citizen was shed by the sword of war or of the law."

Thanks to George W. Bush, it may be a long time before any president can say the same thing.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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