I listened to Terry Gross's interview of David Frum and Richard Perle yesterday. Frum and Perle are two self-described hardliners and architects of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy. Their basic position was this:
1. We (the U.S.) continue to be under grave threat of terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists, and have been for over a decade (c.f. the first WTC bombing in 1993).
2. The source of the threat is widely distributed, and includes (or included) Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, North Korea, and several other countries.
3. A policy of patient diplomacy failed to prevent 9/11, and could therefore reasonably be expected to fail to prevent future and even more horrific attacks using ever more powerful WOMD.
4. Therefore, some kind of pre-emptive military action was not only justified, but necessary to show the world that the U.S. was serious about protecting its security.
You know what? I mostly agree with them.
The problem with the war in Iraq was not so much that it happened, but that it was sold on the basis of (let's be generous) a very serious mistake. Frum and Perle's argument, while it might have been instrumental in forming Adminstration policy, was never made to the American people, or to the rest of the world. The argument that was publicly made was very, very different, to wit, that Iraq 1) possessed WOMD and 2) had extant ties to terrorist organizations and therefore 3) presented an imminent danger to the U.S. and the rest of the world.
That argument was false. We may never know whether it was an honest mistake, or a deliberate deception based on the realization that the real reason for attacking Iraq would almost certainly draw even more widespread condemnation than the one that was actually given. The real reason was, to paraphrase: there's a threat out there somewhere, we don't really know exactly where, but 9/11 has exhausted our reserve of patience and so by God we're going to go out and kick some Muslim fundamentalist ass.
I can see why some people in the Administration thought it might not have flown, and that they had to come up with something else.
Trouble is, we have now painted ourselves into a very serious corner. By attacking a country that 1) was not really the central locus of the threat and 2) on a false pretext, we have now seriously undermined our ability to press the initiative. Making an example of Iraq seems to have been enough to bring Lybia and North Korea in line, but what if it isn't enough to also bring Syria, Pakistan, and (the elephant in the living room) Saudia Arabia around? What if the Taliban re-establish themselves in Afghanistan (a real possibility by the way)? What if we get to the point where we need to kick some more Islamic fundamentalist ass in order to make our point? What then? There are no more Saddam Husseins out there (unless you want to count Serdar Turkmenbashi, but does anyone really think that attacking Turkmensitan next is going to have any effect but to leave all the Isalmic fundamentalists rolling on the floor laughing?)
The problem with attacking Iraq on a false pretext is, as many have pointed out, that there is no exit strategy. I don't mean that in the usual small way, referring to getting our troops out of Iraq. I mean it in a big way, that it leaves us with our hands tied. We laid some implicit ground rules with our rhetoric: it's OK to launch pre-emptive strikes as long as 1) the danger is imminant and 2) the leader is brutal. If it should become necessary to launch another pre-emptive strike against another country in order to win the war on terrorism we will have only two choices. We either have to make the case against another country on the basis of those same ground rules, in which case we will almost certainly fail to do so (the credibility of our intelligence has been seriously undermined), or we have to unilaterally change the rules, in which case the world will almost certainly condemn us. The last person to change the ground rules they set up in order to justify a pre-emptive attack on another country was Adolf Hitler when he invaded Poland in 1939.