- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

The American people are not wholeheartedly committed to a U.S. invasion of Iraq.Vice President Richard Cheney's staff is. Mr. Rumsfeld's deputies are. The White House's speechwriting office is. The guys they're working under are.

But what about the families of those who will do the actual fighting? What about the country that will have to suffer the casualties and bitterness that are the wreckage of every war?

A new Washington Post/ABC poll finds that 57 percent of us back a ground attack on Baghdad.

But that's if there are no significant casualties. Faced with that hard-to-ignore prospect, 51 percent oppose it.

Is this a strong popular base from which to launch a pre-emptive attack on a country at the other side of the world? To send several hundred thousand U.S. service people on a mission to take over a country, remove its political leadership from power and install one of our choosing?

It's time to recall the Powell doctrine. It's even more important to recall the two words that gave it historic resonance: Vietnam and Beirut.

With memories of those misconceived missions fresh and painful, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and his then-chief military assistant, Gen. Colin Powell, drafted new criteria for overseas military involvement.

War,they agreed, should be a last resort. It should be undertaken only in the presence of precise political andmilitary goals, with clear popular support from the American public and the Congress. There must be a clear exit strategy, and an unhesitating will to deploy overwhelming force.

"War should be the politics of last resort," Mr. Powell reasserted in his autobiography. "And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support; we should mobilize the country's resources to fulfill that mission and then go in to win. In Vietnam, we had entered into a halfhearted half-war, with much of the nation opposed or indifferent, while a small fraction carried the burden."

Mr. Powell condemned the ambiguous mission objectives that led to the 1983 Lebanon fiasco that cost us the lives of so many young Marines:

"When the political objective is important, clearly defined and understood, when the risks are acceptable, and when the use of force can be effectively combined with diplomatic and economic policies, then clear and unambiguous objectives must be given to armed forces. These objectives must be firmly linked with the political objectives. We must not, for example, send military forces into a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish such as we did when we sent the U.S. Marines into Lebanon in 1983. We inserted those proud warriors into the middle of a five-faction civil war complete with terrorists, hostage-takers and a dozen spies in every camp, and said, 'Gentlemen, be a buffer.' When we use [force], we should not be equivocal; we should win and win decisively."

The great danger, Mr. Powell understood, lay in sending American troops with a narrowly defined mission and then expanding their role once in the field. The term is "mission creep."

So we drop tens of thousands of airborne troops into Baghdad. We lay siege to the governmental offices. We begin rounding up anyone who looks like they're important. We face down snipers in the streets. We look for Saddam Hussein. We wear gas masks to protect us from whatever chemical and biological weapons the Iraqi leader has stockpiled for just this occasion. A threatened Israel mobilizes for war.

All this comes to pass against the backdrop of an Arab and Islamic world in riot. In Cairo, Mr. Mubarak must tighten his grip and ignites even more popular opposition. Jordan's King Abdullah joins his country's Palestinian majority in condemning the attack. The Saudi Arabian royals are silent. The Muslims and antiwar elements of Europe take to the boulevards. Their governments agree that America has lost its global perspective.

Then comes the messy part.

Our troops in Baghdad morph into a nervous constabulary force. Their mission: guard the streets, shoot snipers, arrest the suspicious, keep order, find the Saddam loyalists, round up the members of his ruling party, root out plots and battle the terrorists.

But for how long?

How long were we in Beirut before that lame-brained "peacekeeping" mission ended with a barracks being blown sky-high by a suicide bomber? How long were we in Saigon before we gave up trying to decide where our mission was less popular: at home or in Vietnam?

This invasion of Iraq, if it goes off, will join the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Desert One, Beirut and Somalia in the history of military catastrophes.

What will set it apart, distinguishing it for all time, is the immense and transparent political stupidity.

A mission to attack one isolated enemy will end up isolating us. A mission justified by the fight against terrorism will give birth to millions of terrorist-supporting haters. In every cafe from Manila to Casablanca just whom do you think they'll be rooting for? Just whom will their kids be killing themselves for?

Chris Matthews is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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