Iraq: Politics or Policy?

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

October 4, 2004

Sorry, I've been away writing a book. I'm back, so let's get right down to business: We're in trouble in Iraq.

I don't know what is salvageable there anymore. I hope it is something decent and I am certain we have to try our best to bring about elections and rebuild the Iraqi Army to give every chance for decency to emerge there. But here is the cold, hard truth: This war has been hugely mismanaged by this administration, in the face of clear advice to the contrary at every stage, and as a result the range of decent outcomes in Iraq has been narrowed and the tools we have to bring even those about are more limited than ever.

What happened? The Bush team got its doctrines mixed up: it applied the Powell Doctrine to the campaign against John Kerry - "overwhelming force" without mercy, based on a strategy of shock and awe at the Republican convention, followed by a propaganda blitz that got its message across in every possible way, including through distortion. If only the Bush team had gone after the remnants of Saddam's army in the Sunni Triangle with the brutal efficiency it has gone after Senator Kerry in the Iowa-Ohio-Michigan triangle. If only the Bush team had spoken to Iraqis and Arabs with as clear a message as it did to the Republican base. No, alas, while the Bush people applied the Powell Doctrine in the Midwest, they applied the Rumsfeld Doctrine in the Middle East. And the Rumsfeld Doctrine is: "Just enough troops to lose." Donald Rumsfeld tried to prove that a small, mobile army was all that was needed to topple Saddam, without realizing that such a limited force could never stabilize Iraq. He never thought it would have to. He thought his Iraqi pals would do it. He was wrong.

For all of President Bush's vaunted talk about being consistent and resolute, the fact is he never established U.S. authority in Iraq. Never. This has been the source of all our troubles. We have never controlled all the borders, we have never even consistently controlled the road from Baghdad airport into town, because we never had enough troops to do it.

Being away has not changed my belief one iota in the importance of producing a decent outcome in Iraq, to help move the Arab-Muslim world off its steady slide toward increased authoritarianism, unemployment, overpopulation, suicidal terrorism and religious obscurantism. But my time off has clarified for me, even more, that this Bush team can't get us there, and may have so messed things up that no one can. Why? Because each time the Bush team had to choose between doing the right thing in the war on terrorism or siding with its political base and ideology, it chose its base and ideology. More troops or radically lower taxes? Lower taxes. Fire an evangelical Christian U.S. general who smears Islam in a speech while wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army or not fire him so as not to anger the Christian right? Don't fire him. Apologize to the U.N. for not finding the W.M.D., and then make the case for why our allies should still join us in Iraq to establish a decent government there? Don't apologize - for any thing - because Karl Rove says the "base" won't like it. Impose a "Patriot Tax" of 50 cents a gallon on gasoline to help pay for the war, shrink the deficit and reduce the amount of oil we consume so we send less money to Saudi Arabia? Never. Just tell Americans to go on guzzling. Fire the secretary of defense for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, to show the world how seriously we take this outrage - or do nothing? Do nothing. Firing Mr. Rumsfeld might upset conservatives. Listen to the C.I.A.? Only when it can confirm your ideology. When it disagrees - impugn it or ignore it.

What I resent so much is that some of us actually put our personal politics aside in thinking about this war and about why it is so important to produce a different Iraq. This administration never did. Mr. Kerry's own views on Iraq have been intensely political and for a long time not well thought through. But Mr. Kerry is a politician running for office. Mr. Bush is president, charged with protecting the national interest, and yet from the beginning he has run Iraq policy as an extension of his political campaign.

Friends, I return to where I started: We're in trouble in Iraq. We have to immediately get the Democratic and Republican politics out of this policy and start honestly reassessing what is the maximum we can still achieve there and what every American is going to have to do to make it happen. If we do not, we'll end up not only with a fractured Iraq, but with a fractured America, at war with itself and isolated from the world.