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Archive for October, 2003

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

The fact that al-Qaida has not hit us here at home in the past two years does not mean that we are any more secure now than we were the day before 9/11. Al-Qaida is an experienced, competent, organized, compartmentalized terrorist organization that considers us, and no one but us, its prime enemy.

That makes what we have done in Iraq even more problematical. After all the administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, not one of its allegations has been substantiated. What we have done in Iraq is revolutionary and far reaching. We have undertaken a unilateral, unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation for the first time since the founding of the United Nations and continue to claim the right to conduct pre-emptive attacks. That tells other countries that it is OK for them to do likewise. In the process, we have renounced the primacy of the United Nations, an organization that we set up to try to maintain world peace. We have done this at the same time that we have demonstrated in Iraq that we cannot maintain peace by ourselves. We also have scorned our traditional allies in Europe and Asia who got us through the last half of the 20th century, including the first gulf war, telling them that we are not interested in what they have to say about international affairs.

What have we accomplished? We have lost our real allies, perhaps for a very long time. We are stuck in Iraq without a clue about what to do next. We are getting our troops killed in a chaotic environment to which we clearly are unable to bring even the most rudimentary order. Worst of all, we have lost our focus on the real terrorist target. We have not destroyed al-Qaida, and it is probable that our attack on and occupation of Iraq will bring al-Qaida more recruits than it could possibly have gotten on its own.

It is really hard to see any good having come from our actions except for having done in Saddam Hussein.

Developments since we “won” in Iraq have been so unnerving that the Bush administration is clearly rethinking its unilateralist policies. It is admitting that the United States cannot pull off its goals, whatever they may be, without help from those countries we have already told to get lost. Perhaps as a gesture to Secretary of State Colin Powell and his belief in multilateralism, George Bush seems to be saying we will try it again. However, the real issue here is what he is prepared to give up and what our scorned former friends and allies will demand. What’s in it for France, Germany and Russia to sign on as second-rate partners in this endeavor? Why should they see it in their national interest, even though they probably understand the ultimate importance of a stable Iraq?

If Bush’s attempts to enlist other countries’ help in Iraq on his terms results in impasse, he will be able to say he tried multilateralism and that it failed. No doubt that will please administration hardliners who initially championed unilateralism, but it will leave us in a terrible bind because we really cannot afford to bail out of Iraq, however wrongheaded the decision was that took us there in the first place. The fact that we have gotten ourselves into this mess is no argument for withdrawing from Iraq. Quite the contrary, the consequences of withdrawal would be grave.

Iraq truly must be stabilized. With three competing national groups, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis and their dozens of subsets, this will not be easy. Iran supports the Shiites, the Saudis support the Sunnis, and Turkey will not allow the Iraqi Kurds to have autonomy for fears about their own Kurds. Historically this geographic area has been ruled successfully only by force. If we are unable to stabilize Iraq, chaos will reign and we will find that we have replicated pre-9/11 Afghanistan in Iraq as a training ground and safe haven for terrorists.

It will take massive resources to stabilize Iraq. Many doubt that we can do it alone. Even if we try, most of the rest of the world, including the Iraqis and the other Middle Eastern countries, do not want us to do this unilaterally.

The only practical way out of this mess is to internationalize the problem, put the United Nations in charge and reconstitute our old alliances. In other words, the Bush administration is unlikely to succeed in this part of the world without abandoning its failed notions of unilateralism and getting back into the world’s good graces. At this point, America needs to decide what face it wants to present to the world.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Beirut and Tehran and was chief of the CIA’s counter-terrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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