Powell, Then and Now

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

September 27, 2004

Secretary of State Colin Powell, discussing the Iraq war during an appearance at The Times on Friday, did not have the crisp certitude of the general who assured us in 1991 that the first gulf war was going almost precisely as planned.

Thirteen years ago Mr. Powell was the supremely confident, almost cocky, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At press briefings he would describe the plan for defeating Saddam Hussein's army, which had invaded and occupied Kuwait, as follows: "First we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it."

He would detail the air, land and naval forces closing in on the Iraqis and say: "I'm not telegraphing anything. I just want everybody to know that we have a tool box that's full of tools, and I brought them all to the party."

He had every reason to be brash. The U.S.-led coalition went into the first gulf war with a coherent plan, extensive international support and overwhelming military superiority, including more than half a million American troops.

Last Friday, surrounded by reporters and editors, Secretary Powell had a decidedly different message. He refused to paint a rosy picture of the current war's progress. "We've got a tough road ahead of us," he said. He acknowledged that the resistance encountered by American troops was stronger than the administration had anticipated, and he added, "I'm not going to underestimate or understate the seriousness of the insurgency."

The resistance, he said, is a "black cloud" over U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Mr. Powell's candor was refreshing. But what we're not getting from the Bush administration is any sense of where we go from here with this war that never made sense, has cost more than 1,000 American lives, has further destabilized the Middle East and has energized the forces of terror that are the real threat to the U.S.

Bush administration officials are busy lowering expectations about the elections scheduled for January. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld now tells us it's fine if elections reach just three-quarters or four-fifths of the country. Secretary Powell, in an interview on CNN yesterday, said: "There will be polling stations that are shot at. There will be insurgents who will be out there who will try to keep people from voting."

No earthly amount of spin can make a credible case that Iraq is on the road to freedom and democracy.

Meanwhile, in yet another echo of Vietnam, American commanders in Iraq are begging for more troops. It was ever thus. Commanders thrust into these unwinnable wars against foreign insurgencies always believe that just a few thousand more troops will turn the tide. Americans were told again and again that there was light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam. The troops sent into that nightmare would dryly remark that the light was coming from an onrushing train.

Rather than destroying an enemy army, which was the goal of the first gulf war, the U.S. military is now spinning its wheels in the Iraqi sand. No one is sure who or where the enemy is, or even what the U.S. mission is. And it is in that horrendous, senseless environment that American troops are getting shot to death or blown up or horribly maimed every single day.

At home, Americans seem to have forgotten what an ill-advised war can do to the United States. More than three decades after it was published, David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" should still be required reading. Lyndon Johnson had hoped Vietnam would be a short war, Mr. Halberstam wrote, and he was afraid of the political consequences if the true economic costs became visible:

"The result was that his economic planning was a living lie, and his administration took us into economic chaos: the Great Society programs were passed but never funded on any large scale; the war itself ran into severe budgetary problems (the decision in 1968 to put a ceiling on the American troops was as much economic as political); and the most important, the failure to finance the war honestly would inspire a virulent inflationary spiral which helped defeat Johnson himself. Seven years after the commitment of combat troops, that inflation was still very much alive and was forcing a successor Administration into radical, desperate economic measures in order to restore some financial balance."

We've been there, done that, and now we're doing it again.