The Stuff That Happened

Editorial

New York Times

March 19, 2006

Three years ago, the United States invaded Iraq. We can all run the story through our minds: Shock and Awe, Coalition of the Willing, Mission Accomplished, looting, "Stuff happens," no W.M.D., suicide bombers, purple fingers, blasted shrine.

Many who supported the invasion have taken this anniversary to argue that it all would have been worthwhile if things had been run better. They argue that if the coalition forces had been large enough to actually secure the country, to keep insurgents from raiding Saddam Hussein's ammunition depots, to give the people a sense of safety, the country might well be on the road to a hopeful future.

We doubt it. The last three years have shown how little our national leaders understood Iraq, and have reminded us how badly attempts at liberation from the outside have gone in the past. Given where we are now, the question of whether a botched invasion created a lost opportunity might be moot, except for one thing. The man who did the botching, Donald Rumsfeld, is still the secretary of defense.

The generals on the ground understood what a disaster they were creating in the pell-mell race to Baghdad, which left in its wake an entire country full of places where Saddam Hussein's loyalists could regroup and prepare to carry on a permanent war against the Americans and their fellow Iraqis. As the new book "Cobra II" by Michael Gordon of The Times and Bernard Trainor underscores, the generals in the field were overruled by directives from Washington, where military decisions were being made by men who were guided not by reality, but by their own beloved myths about what Iraq was like and how the war was going to be won.

Chances are that at the time George W. Bush did not have an inkling of how badly he was being served by the decision makers at the Pentagon. But the fact that Mr. Rumsfeld continues to hold his job tells us that Mr. Bush doesn't care, that he prefers living in the same dream world that his secretary of defense inhabits.

In their wishful thinking, Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld undoubtedly tell themselves what they tell us: that the Iraqi people are better off than they were under the brutal dictator, that the Iraqi security forces are gradually learning how to take over defense of their own country and that a unified government is still a good possibility. It's true that many Iraqis are better off. Others are in far worse straits their homes have been ruined, their relatives killed, their jobs evaporated and their ability to walk the streets in safety obliterated. Women's rights are being threatened in the south, and sectarian warfare has put families with mixed Shiite-Sunni ancestry at risk in their own neighborhoods. It is hard to quantify relative degrees of misery and pain in these circumstances. But unlike the horrors of Saddam Hussein, the horrors of the present can be laid at America's doorstep.

If the mission in Iraq was to create a stable democracy in the heart of the Middle East and inspire neighboring countries to follow the same path, the results have been crushingly bad unless Mr. Bush regards the election of Palestinian terrorists as the leaders in Gaza and the West Bank as a step forward. Iran is extending its sway by the hour. In Afghanistan, American forces are too thin to do much more than protect the central government in downtown Kabul.

The idea that Iraqi security forces are poised to take over the job of protecting the people in a unified country is almost ludicrous. Many of those forces are actually sectarian militias that have been armed by the coalition forces, but not changed by them. So far, attempts at creating a government that could bring the country some modicum of stability have fallen apart. There are no leaders with the strength or credibility or even desire to rally anyone but their own co-religionists or ethnic group.

When Americans ask themselves whether anything has been accomplished in Iraq, they do take note that there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. That has been an enormous blessing, for which law enforcement officials can offer no explanation other than somewhat perplexed guesses. It's possible that the chaos in Iraq has distracted Al Qaeda, diverting its energy to fomenting civil war between Sunnis and Shiites in the heart of the Middle East. If that is so, we may have bought short-term peace while creating a training ground for terrorists and a no man's land where they can operate with impunity.

The Iraq debacle ought to serve as a humbling lesson for future generations of American leaders although, if our leaders were capable of being humbled, they could have simply looked back to Vietnam. For the present, our goal must be to minimize the damage, through the urgent diplomacy of the current ambassador and forceful reminders that American forces are not prepared to remain for one day in a country whose leaders prefer civil war to peaceful compromise.

While we are distracted by picking up the pieces, there is no time to imagine what the world might be like if George Bush had chosen to see things as they were instead of how he wanted them to be three years ago. History will have more time to consider the question.