September 26, 2004


How to Pick a War President: Time to debate: This is the first foreign-policy election in a quarter century. Voters are scared; they want to know who will be the best commander in chief. Here's what to look for (Fareed Zakaria, 10/04/04, Newsweek)

The candidates should face three tests that help reveal their strengths and weaknesses as leaders in war. First, how do they define this conflict? Second, how do they define success? Finally, how do they think victory can be achieved? As we watch the debate this week, we should bear these questions in mind, listen for answers and judge the candidates accordingly.

The first test is potentially the most important, because all else follows from it. What kind of conflict are we in? The Bush administration has striven to make the case that we are in a war much like World War II. Both the president and Vice President Cheney have repeatedly implied this. Cheney has often made specific analogies to it. The president's supporters explain that in a life-and-death struggle with a mortal foe, you have to fight anywhere and everywhere. Things don't always go well. Churchill and Roosevelt made many mistakes during the second world war. But they kept pressing forward. Looking back today, who knows if the North African invasion was worthwhile? Sometimes you take the wrong hill. That's war.

It's a powerful interpretation because, if accepted, it gives the administration a virtual carte blanche. All errors are forgiven, all blunders swept aside, all excesses dwarfed by the overarching conflict. Iraq may have been badly handled, but it is just one front in a many-front war. Abu Ghraib may have been appalling, but consider the pressures. During World War II, the United States interned Japanese-American civilians. It wasn't right, but it was war.

An alternative interpretation would hold that we are not in a classic war with a powerful and identifiable country. Rather, this new war is really much more like the cold war. It has a military dimension, to be sure, but in large part it's a political, economic and social struggle for hearts and minds. In such a conflict, as in the cold war, the question of where and how military force is used is crucial. Its battlefield successes always have to be balanced against political effects. An understanding of culture and nationalism becomes key because the goal is more complex than simple military victory. It is creating like-minded societies. Thus, if you are not sophisticated in your application of power, you can find yourself in a situation like Vietnam where you win every battle but lose the war.

One can argue that this is precisely the situation in Iraq, where America could easily crush the insurgency but at a political price that would make victory utterly counterproductive. And beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, the conflict becomes even more complex and less military. In Iran and North Korea, the military option is more bluster than fact. And how does one defuse militant extremism in, say, Indonesia, Morocco and Egypt? By working with those governments to find terrorists, and with those societies to help modernize them. And if this is the bulk of the task going forward, does it really resemble a war?

The second challenge for the candidates is to explain what would constitute success. Here Bush has been clear. Success requires victory in Iraq, which is "the central front in the war on terror." Bush seeks to establish democracy in Iraq as a way of breaking the tyrannical status quo in the Middle East that has bred repression and terror. Kerry has argued that the war in Iraq was justifiable but disastrously botched. More recently he's said that it has been a distraction from the war on terror. Though both are defensible positions, Kerry will have to choose one of them. [...]

Bush's central problem is with the third factor: the path to success. His goals are clear and effectively stated. But he appears unaware of the situation on the ground in Iraq. He says he is "pleased with the progress" so far and speaks of a "handful of terrorists" disrupting democracy in Iraq. Contrast this picture with the one painted two weeks ago by a team from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a hawkish think tank, that conducted an extensive survey of Iraq. They concluded that in every dimension, from security to reconstruction to economics, Iraq was slipping backward. This is also the view of the CIA and almost all journalists in Iraq. Bush risks coming across not as visionary but as someone disconnected from reality.

Mr. Zakaria, though often insightful, makes a significant mistake here when he notes that the President has cast this as a war of containment and transformation but compares that to WWII rather than the Cold War. WWII was easy enough because all you had to do was defeat a couple of discrete fascist regimes and you'd achieved all of FDR's goals (the disaster of setting such meager goals is another question). It was in the Cold War that we fought everywhere and anywhere, sometimes using our own troops, sometimes leading allies, often just funding insurgencies or counter-insurgencies that others fought for us. Meanwhile we spent money propping up rotten democracies in Europe and fostering nascent ones elsewhere, but at the same time defended authoritarian allies so long as they maintained liberalization as their ultimate goal. Similarly, in the War on Terror, where there is no one enemy state we can defeat, we sent our troops to Afghanistan (with many allies, at least rhetorical) and Iraq (with far fewer), are helping governments from the Philippines to Colombia to Pakistan to take on internal insurgencies, are aiding reform movements in Syria, Iran and the like, and are tolerating the Sa'uds and Musharraf and others so long as they keep moving in the right direction.

Given this more appropriate context it seems clear that Mr. Zakaria drifts further and further off course as he goes along. Iraq is not an end in itself in this case nor is a complete victory necessary. It would be most desirable if the entire country could be democratized, but a situation where the Kurdish north and Shi'a south were relatively liberalized and only a rump Sunni triangle stayed wartorn but surrounded would be a satisfactory intermediate outcome while we turned our attention elsewhere. After all, saving South Korea but leaving North Korea under communist control was sub-optimal but hardly meant the Cold War was lost.

Mr. Zakaria is so blinded by his focus on Iraq, as earlier intellectuals were by their focus on Vietnam, that he ignores the broader reality of rapid reform and democratic normalization in the rest of Islam--from orderly and regular elections in places like Turkey and Indonesia to Libya coming in from the cold to intrafada in Palestine to democratic evolution in places like Morocco and so on. Even our most likely next target in the broader war, Bashir Assad of Syria, seems hellbent on appeasing our demands in order to avoid being deposed militarily.

If you wanted just one test for picking a wartime president, you could do worse than this: Do you believe the war in Iraq to be the War on Terror incarnate, just one battle in a larger war, or a distraction from the criminal investigation of al Qaeda? The candidates' respective answers are revealing and should be determinative.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2004 9:48 AM

Mr. Zakaria also goes astray when he claims that Iraq is now worse off economically than it was under Saddam.

Hundreds of thousands of satellite dishes and over a million cars sold in the past year, in Iraq, tell a different story.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 27, 2004 2:57 AM