Misperceptions on the war

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The Democratic Party as a whole, and most of its presidential candidates, are making three consistent mistakes in their otherwise generally fair critiques of Bush administration policy in Iraq. These mistakes should be corrected. If they are not, Democrats will be less effective as constructive critics of President Bush now, and will probably fare worse in national elections next fall.

The first mistake is to argue that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were not a serious concern before the war. The second is that somehow Bush administration unilateralism has been the principal cause of our current problems on the ground in Iraq. And the third is the assumption, explicit or implicit, that the Iraq mission will remain just as difficult as it is today right through general election time next year.

On the weapons of mass destruction issue, Democrats are right that the administration hyped the threat before going to war. But the party must remember that virtually everyone — in the United States, the U.N. system, Europe, former Clinton administration ranks and elsewhere — believed Saddam Hussein still had chemical and biological weapons given his track record on the subject. If Saddam had wanted to prove us wrong, he could have verifiably accounted for all the materials he had imported over the years — materials that had no other credible purpose except to manufacture chemical or biological agents. Since he did not, and since he had a track record of both hiding and using such arms, it was reasonable to be worried.

Even if Saddam had not been able to build a nuclear bomb quickly, a Ba’athist regime — perhaps under Saddam’s sons Uday or Qusay — would likely have had the bomb within a decade or two. It therefore made sense for Mr. Bush to force the disarmament issue to a head while September 11 was still fresh in American minds. Even though Saddam had no role in those terrorist attacks, the American people were more likely to be steeled for any war that might be required to disarm the Iraqi tyrant while the memories of September 11 were still raw. This is not to say that President Bush chose the right moment for war, or that his unilateralism was necessary. But the basic logic of requiring Saddam to verifiably disarmorbedisarmedwas reasonable.

Democrats’ second big mistake concerns Iraq today. Some have argued that our present problems there arose because the United States went to war almost alone and is now trying to stabilize the country almost alone. In particular, we are providing about five-sixths of all troops now in Iraq, and at least two-thirds of all funding for Iraq’s reconstruction.

However, the facts do not fit this theory. Insurgent attacks have been carried out not only against Americans but against a wide array of foreign and domestic targets — the Jordanian embassy, U.N. compound, Najaf mosque, moderate Iraqi political figures, and most recently, Ukrainian troops. Ba’athists and their foreign jihadist partners are targeting anyone who would keep them from power.

Finally, Democrats implicitly assume that Iraq will still be as big a national problem come election time next fall. That assumption is probably wrong. For one thing, a number of trends in Iraq today — in the education and health sectors, in electricity levels, in availability of fuels for cooking and heating, and in market activity — are more positive than commonly appreciated.

Perhaps most crucially, U.S. troops in Iraq will almost surely be fewer in number — and less exposed to attack — come next fall. Although there will not yet be a strong Iraqi army to replace the U.S.-led coalition, there will be an Iraqi police force that has taken over most patrolling and routine beat-walking duties in major Iraqi cities. Already, 55,000 such police are on the streets, and the number will double within a year. That should permit U.S. troop levels in Iraq to decline by about half and reduce American casualties at least as much.

Democrats should continue to criticize Mr. Bush as they see fit for rushing to war without a coalition, for frequently trivializing how hard and costly it would be to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, and for making mistakes in the early going of the stabilization mission. These critiques are substantive, fair and politically useful. But many of the other themes commonly heard from Democrats today are none of the above.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “Clinton’s Strong Defense Legacy” in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

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