March 19, 2004

One Year After

One year ago, President Bush began the war in Iraq. Most Americans expected military victory to come quickly, as it did. Despite the administration's optimism about what would follow, it was also easy to predict that the period after the fall of Baghdad would be very messy and very dangerous. In that sense, right now we're exactly where we expected to be.

It's nonetheless important to remember that none of this might have happened if we had known then what we know now. No matter what the president believed about the long-term threat posed by Saddam Hussein, he would have had a much harder time selling this war of choice to the American people if they had known that the Iraqi dictator had been reduced to a toothless tiger by the first Persian Gulf war and by United Nations weapons inspectors. Iraq's weapons programs had been shut down, Mr. Hussein had no threatening weapons stockpiled, the administration was exaggerating evidence about them, and there was, and is, no evidence that Mr. Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Right now, our highest priority is making the best of a very disturbing situation. Even our European allies who opposed the war want to see Iraq stabilized and turned over to its citizens — even if they don't necessarily see Washington as the force to do that. The other possibility, an Iraq flung into chaos and civil war, open to manipulation by every unscrupulous political figure and terrorist group in the Middle East, is too awful to contemplate.

This is a good moment to take stock of what has been accomplished and what has not, especially since the day is rapidly approaching when the United States hopes to turn over the governing of Iraq to the leaders of the nation's three major ethnic or religious groups — who have shown no serious signs of being able to cooperate.

Grim Scenes From Iraq

In the short run, the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of its leader have done virtually nothing to stop terrorism. In Iraq, as in Spain, Turkey, Indonesia and other countries, terrorist attacks have continued since the capture of Mr. Hussein. On Wednesday, and again yesterday, Americans saw on television news the flames and casualties from bombings in Baghdad and Basra by forces opposed to the American-led occupation, which have become more deadly and more sophisticated in response to every change in tactics by American soldiers. Indeed, the war in Iraq has diverted scarce resources from the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and other places.

For many Iraqis, freedom has come at a high price. In Baghdad, civilians line up at offices where the American military doles out money to compensate them for relatives killed, limbs lost and eyes blinded in the war. The innocent Iraqi casualties of Mr. Bush's war are literally countless because the Pentagon refuses to estimate their number.

Still, there have been important gains that are the basis of our hopes for the future.

A bloodthirsty dictator who tortured and murdered his people, and sacrificed their well-being to his gilded palaces, is locked up. An interim constitution has been adopted, a step toward laying the groundwork for a democratic government in Iraq, should the country's fractious groups ever resolve their differences. American-led efforts to rebuild Iraq have progressed to the point that some services are better than they were under Mr. Hussein, and Iraqis are starting to express satisfaction with how things are going. Iraq's power grid, for example, generates more electricity than ever.

Still, there are enormous gaps. According to the United States Agency for International Development, Iraq has a third less drinking water than it did before the war. And the pace of the rebuilding is alienating some Iraqis who clearly overestimated the powers and efficiency of the occupying forces. While some of that disappointment was inevitable, there was a bewildering lack of planning put into the occupation by an administration that seemed to believe its own talk about American soldiers' being greeted with flowers as an army of liberation.

The so-called surgical bombing did indeed limit damage to Iraq's civilian areas, but American troops did not come into Baghdad in enough force last April to deter the shocking sabotage and looting that occurred. In addition, the American government, under presidents from both parties, had spent 13 years in denial about the civilian toll of the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. The Bush administration was unprepared for the total collapse of Iraq and for the disastrous state of crucial services.

Strains on the American Military

The American military's ability to deal with all of this — and supervise the construction of a new democracy — is declining by the week. Even with the current rotation, reducing American troop strength to 110,000 from 130,000, the Army, Marine, National Guard and Army Reserve forces cannot sustain the occupation.

Roughly one in three of the Army's 480,000 active-duty soldiers are on duty overseas, and an even higher proportion of its combat brigades are either in the field or have just returned. Rotations are spaced too closely together — some of the troops that took part in the invasion of Iraq are to return there later this year — and that cuts into training and readiness. The strain on the Reserves and the National Guard is already enormous. While sending more American troops to Iraq is not the answer, the United States does need a larger active Army.

For Iraq, the only answer is greater peacekeeping and police help through the United Nations, from nations as varied as France, India, Bangladesh, Russia and the Arab countries. These nations can provide more than the token forces the United States is getting from most of its current allies, but are unlikely to help until their citizens see real United Nations authority, transforming a military occupation into a legitimate exercise in international nation-building.

Some members of Mr. Bush's coalition are shaken by the electoral defeat of the Spanish government that joined the invasion despite the opposition of some 90 percent of its citizens. In Poland, President Aleksander Kwasniewski said yesterday that he might withdraw troops from Iraq next year earlier than planned, adding that Poland had been "misled" about Iraq's weapons programs.

Repairing the Diplomatic Damage

Winning the cooperation of countries like France and Russia will require the Bush administration to be far more serious about turning over real responsibility in Iraq to the United Nations and NATO. The United Nations is, commendably, no longer so hesitant about taking the lead in Iraq.

The Bush administration has barely begun the job of repairing the damage from its virtually unilateral rush to war last year. What the public and foreign leaders have learned about the way it managed the run-up to the invasion is only worsening the situation.

Asking a political leader to take his country to war in the teeth of overwhelming popular opposition is tough enough. Add to that a public that feels misinformed about the reasons for the war, and you've got political combustion. Polls show that a plurality of Americans say it was worth a war simply to remove a vicious dictator — an argument that Mr. Bush offered after it became obvious that his original justifications for the war were vaporous. But in Europe, there remains overwhelming popular opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney was wrong on Wednesday when he accused Spain of abandoning the war against terrorism by talking about withdrawing its forces from Iraq unless the U.N. becomes more involved. It's nonsensical to suggest that the Spanish people are appeasers, and doing so only isolates Washington further.

This page strongly opposed invading Iraq without international backing. The events since Mr. Bush decided to go ahead with only Britain as a major ally have further underscored the recklessness of this sort of adventurism.

It is not, as Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have argued in campaign speeches and commercials, a question of getting permission from the United Nations to do the right thing. It is a matter of listening to the reasonable objections of proven friends, like Germany, which was privately warning Washington about the quagmire that Iraq represented.

Stability for a Divided Iraq

The United States is now about 100 days away from June 30, when it hopes to turn Iraq's government over to Iraqis. As welcome as the adoption of the interim constitution was, it underscored how much more remains to be done before the Iraqis can begin to hope for a stable, workable leadership to govern their wounded country. So far, the United States has not found the formula for accomplishing what has in the past always seemed impossible: getting Iraq's majority Shiites, minority Sunnis and separatist Kurds to make real concessions and cooperate in governing Iraq. Days after compromising on the constitution, Shiite leaders were talking of amending it, and it took an ultimatum from Washington this week to make them back down.

Without any culture of trust and accommodation, any form of real elective democracy empowers the Shiites, reduces the influence of the Sunnis and once again leaves the Kurds, who have long wanted to break away from Iraq, at the mercy of people they do not trust. A Shiite-dominated Iraq may run into trouble with Iraq's Arab neighbors, who generally identify with the Sunni Iraqis, who dominate the country's military and ruling classes.

One temporary solution could be a prolonged period of Iraqi federalism imposed from the outside or an international trusteeship. Either, however, is likely to generate intense Iraqi opposition. Whatever model emerges, it must be guided by international bodies and not Washington alone.

In some ways, the prime-minister-in-waiting of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, did Mr. Bush a favor when he said he would withdraw Spain's symbolic military force from Iraq if the United Nations' role did not significantly increase after June 30. He has, in effect, given the president time to plan and to get cooperation from those countries that can contribute real forces. We hope the president uses this time to plan his next steps better than he planned the occupation.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top