Archive for March, 2005

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

The twin tactics of the Cold War – containment and alliances – really helped me mature politically.  The policy showed me the advantages of having real constraints on both America and the USSR from their adversaries and allies. In the end there was no hot war and the tactics did succeed: The Soviet Union failed, and America prevailed.

As one who accepts containment and alliances as the absolute best way – the only way – to deal with enemies, I have found President Bush’s implementation of the radical new foreign policy of pre-emptive unilateralism frightening, wrongheaded and doomed. Along with others who have studied the Middle East, I couldn’t have imagined a more dangerous or less promising place than Iraq to try out this strategy. The objective conditions there could not have been more hostile to this foreign policy revolution.

Those of us who believe in containment and alliances quickly took over the winning side of the argument. Everything that could have gone wrong in the aftermath of a brilliant and imaginative military invasion did. Chaos reigned. Our generals and many military, political and foreign policy writers, myself included, said we needed more troops on the ground and that establishing peace would be the problem. The primary rationale for the invasion — the threat of weapons of mass destruction ó proved to be a farce. I am among those Americans who believe the WMD rationale was duplicitously fed to us when some other darker and far less acceptable reason was probably the real reason we went to war.

As our casualties mounted and the insurgency grew, I clung to containment and became more angry at this administration and more convinced that America, as we had all predicted, had made the first truly horrendous foreign policy mistake of the 21st century. The Bush administration had violated its own injunction against nation building by now asserting that the ultimate goal of the invasion had been the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. That, administration officials argued, would introduce democracy into the area and undermine all of the repressive regimes in that part of the world. But the situation in Iraq steadily deteriorated, and I found myself watching my old predictions come true.

Recently, however, it has become increasingly clear that things are not going as badly in Iraq as I feared and, to be brutally honest, not as badly as some had hoped. Yes, some Americans clearly hope that we will fail in Iraq. However, they have been disappointed by a successful election in Afghanistan, which now seems reasonably calm. The election in Iraq has been an unexpected success and that has had an almost immediate positive impact: It is possible that Iraq may move toward a peaceful solution of its ethnic and religious issues.

And as administration officials predicted, the repressive rulers of the Muslim world are clearly concerned. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who earlier eschewed WMD, now looks more compliant than ever. The Saudis and Egyptians are opening the door a crack to free elections. The Israelis and Palestinians are talking. Lebanon seems to have finally risen up against its Syrian yoke. Under increasing international pressure, the Syrians have just turned over Saddam’s half brother to U.S. forces in Iraq, potentially a major blow to the insurgency.

Even though these changes do not dictate that we will end up being successful, they are positive signs for America. I go to bed at night with the nagging worry that the crazy neo-con fathers may conceivably have been right in pushing pre-emptive unilateralism. Have I been stubbornly and stupidly wrong?

This is far from over. Pre-emptive unilateralism may still prove to be the curse of the 21st century. Virtually every Middle East expert I know believes that the inherent contradictions that have always existed in Iraq eventually will bring that country to civil strife. Powerful forces in the Middle East don’t want us to succeed in bringing democracy to the Muslim world. Supporters of the repressive regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the Persian Gulf and Africa have the wherewithal and motivation, either because of their oil wealth or because of their simple desire to stay in power, to continue to support the Iraqi insurgency and try to disrupt any Iraqi move toward democracy. It is clearly in their own narrow self-interest to do so.

Frankly, I don’t know if this adventure with pre-emptive unilateralism has all been a horrible mistake, as it may ultimately prove to be. Certainly a successful outcome would be the best possible turn of events for the United States. But is it worth the monumental risks and costs involved? Perhaps. The conditions that support terrorism might begin to fade away with the departure of the region’s repressive rulers. The conflict between Israel and its neighbors could disappear with the creation of a Palestinian state and the resulting dissipation of Arab anger that supports terrorism. We could even withdraw our troops from the region, thus removing the last factor that supports terrorism, the stationing of “infidel” American troops on holy Islamic ground in Saudi Arabia. Success might conceivably even justify the costs. It is clearly in our national interest not to fail in Iraq.

On the other hand, I constantly ask myself if such success would embolden the Bush administration to engage in further such adventures, each time making all our military, economic, international and political problems worse and bringing the potential of further disaster. Any way you slice it, this incredibly revolutionary Bush foreign policy is a monumental gamble, with every facet of our national treasure at stake.

No one, least of all I, knows what is going to happen in Iraq. All we can do is wait and see. Only history can be the final arbiter of our success or failure. In the meantime, it does seem somewhat unseemly that so many Americans are waging their own battles against a policy that, although a long shot, could radically alter the situation in the Middle East in our favor and deal a major blow to those who would continue to try to do us harm.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Lebanon and Iran and as chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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