The other obstacle we face in Iraq - ourselves

May 25, 2004|By Steve Chapman

LOTS OF presidents have had musical talents. Harry Truman and Richard Nixon played the piano in the White House. Bill Clinton played the saxophone on TV. George W. Bush whistles past the graveyard.

The president is fond of declaring that no matter what happens, the United States will stay as long as necessary to ensure a happy outcome in Iraq. In a speech last week, he said, "The world watches for weakness in our resolve. They will see no weakness. We will answer any challenge."

But everything the administration has done from the start suggests that what it wants most is an early exit. The Defense Department kept the invasion force small because it didn't expect any resistance once Saddam Hussein and his army were defeated. The plan was to get in fast and get out fast.

Before the war, Pentagon officials said the occupation would last anywhere from 30 to 90 days. That plan barely outlasted the invasion. When violence surged last summer, the administration was forced to revise its timetable, but until recently, it insisted we'd cut our troop strength this spring. Instead, the administration has had to boost our presence, while giving the impression that things will look better once we transfer sovereignty June 30.

If the president is planning to pay any price and bear any burden in Iraq, he hasn't communicated that to the American people, possibly because they may not share that intention. Certainly no one at the White House is saying what an Army officer who served there told The Washington Post recently - that we'll be in Iraq for another five years, at least, "taking casualties" the entire time.

If Americans' resolve to remain in Iraq is going to hold, they will require proof that our leaders know how to achieve a satisfactory outcome. But it becomes clearer every day that we're making this up as we go along.

First, we got rid of all the Baath Party members; then, we turned Fallujah over to one of Saddam Hussein's generals. Before the war, we planned to install our buddy Ahmad Chalabi to run the country; last week, we sent troops to raid his headquarters. We've alienated masses of Shiites, who were supposed to welcome us, without managing to make friends among their longtime rivals, the Sunnis.

When a reporter from The New York Times asked Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar if the administration has a plan for the June 30 handover, he replied, with an excess of candor: "Not yet."

It's hard to see signs of true determination in the administration or the American people. The war has cost a lot more than was advertised, but the public isn't angry about the cost - because we aren't bearing it. Taxes haven't gone up to answer the need.

Journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, an opponent of military conscription, said we should draft old men's money, not young men's bodies. But for Iraq, we're doing neither. Answer any challenge? Sure, as long as we don't have to pay for it.

None of this is surprising. The Bush administration dreamed of a grand nation-building project in Iraq that would transform the Middle East, but Americans are not interested enough in the rest of the world to undertake long-term commitments of that kind. We're agreeable to quick, successful, low-casualty wars, but not to the tedious, thankless, expensive reconstruction work that comes after. If you don't believe me, ask the Afghans. You do remember the Afghans?

In his new book Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, British historian Niall Ferguson laments that Americans are not focused on what he sees as our proper role in the world, which is administering a benevolent imperial system. He notes that when L. Paul Bremer III took over the Iraq occupation authority, only three members of his staff could speak Arabic. Who but Americans would assume we could govern a country without knowing the language?

The CIA has trouble finding people with the expertise and the desire to spend years undercover in primitive foreign locales.

Mr. Ferguson quotes one CIA officer who scoffed: "Operations that include diarrhea as a way of life don't happen." Mr. Ferguson, a favorite of conservatives who champion an ambitious American foreign policy, has to admit it wouldn't really jibe with our national character. Americans, he complains, "would rather consume than conquer. They would rather build shopping malls than nations." The chief obstacle to American dominance abroad is not any adversary, he says, but "the absence of a will to power."

It's not a bad thing that Americans lack the desire to run the world. It's just a bad thing to forget.

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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