Finding a purpose

August 28, 2005

LET'S TAKE President Bush at his word. When he talks about Iraq, he still keeps bringing up 9/11. Critics of the war, including this newspaper, are astonished and perplexed that he continues to make this connection, when it is plainly evident that there was no real tie between the terror attacks and the regime of Saddam Hussein. So what can he be talking about? Maybe this - let's assume he has something bigger in mind than simple cause and effect. Call it, even, a vision. It could help explain what he's getting at - and it might, in turn, point the way toward the least-disastrous end for the American project in Iraq.

Begin with a historical analogy, and consider the consequences of Pearl Harbor. The United States absorbed that terrible blow, and eventually emerged from World War II as the most powerful nation on Earth and one that had transformed its enemies into key democratic allies. Why couldn't Sept. 11, 2001, do the same for this generation? Those attacks, carried out by 15 Saudis plus an Egyptian, a Lebanese and two men from the United Arab Emirates, dramatically underscored the festering problem of violent Islamist extremism.

A visionary response would be to capitalize on those attacks in a way that would root out, once and for all, the fundamental illness of the (incidentally, oil-rich) Middle East. Overturning the Taliban and destroying al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan were necessary steps, but hardly ones that targeted the basic problem of Middle Eastern - that is, Arab - terror.

Follow this line of thinking, and it's easy to see how it might lead to Baghdad. The United States needed a place to start in the Middle East, and the complicating truth is that the harsh regimes in the two key countries of Saudi Arabia and Egypt were already aligned with Washington and holding back considerably more radical impulses within their populations.

Iraq's abysmal government was, on the other hand, hostile to the United States, and vulnerable. The neoconservative dream of re-creating Iraq as a beacon of democracy to the entire region was - is - a plausible response to 9/11, if the goal is to defang the sort of violent terrorists who hijacked those four planes.

The problem is that it was a plausible but hardly realistic response, given Iraq's specific pathologies - and especially following the giant and numerous blunders committed by the administration. The first major mistake was to assume that a military attack was the way to proceed. (Unarmed American diplomacy has worked wonders in such countries as Georgia and Ukraine even as American ordnance was tearing up Iraqi cities and villages.) A large mistake was to latch on to weapons of mass destruction as a justification for war, when it was clear that even if they had existed it was a phony pretext; the dishonesty that surrounded the American invasion of Iraq helped doom it from the start.

Another nearly fatal mistake was the destruction and humiliation of the once-dominant Sunni Arab power structures in Iraq - a process that has continued with the efforts to ram through a constitution written by Shiites and Kurds.

With the war in Iraq having bogged down, and with American popular opinion turning against it, the Bush administration, with the exception of the president, seems to have decided that the United States must find some expedient way to patch up a ruined country and get out with the least damage. But the president still stubbornly talks about 9/11, so let's return to that grand plan.

Al-Qaida is an organization of Sunni Arabs. The principal American strategy should be to isolate religious terrorists from the mainstream of Sunni society, throughout the Middle East. So instead of belatedly leaning on Iraq's Shiite leaders to placate resentful Sunnis with compromises on a proposed constitution, the Americans should be actively and intensively reaching out to Sunni leaders, even those - maybe especially those - who might have a hand in the insurgency.

Instead of hoping that a pasted-together constitution will suffice, the administration should recognize that the first round of electoral politics in Iraq has failed and that new elections - as risky as they clearly would be - hold out the best chance for reconciliation. Successful new elections would increase Sunni participation and, probably, decrease the influence of the armed, theocratic Shiite parties that now hold power.

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