- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

To paraphrase Karl Marx, a specter is haunting the Bush administration over the war and now the peace in Iraq and problems his team are charged with failing to anticipate. To some, that specter is Vietnam and the horrible quagmire that not only took the lives of 58,000 Americansand countlessVietnamese, but also rent the soul of the nation. Yet, there is another “v” word that stalks the White House — veracity.

In this case, the meaning of veracity is less that of full truthfulness and what the president knew and when did he know it, and more the accuracy of his perception andjudgment. Those who accuse the White House of mendacity in manufacturing or distorting the intelligence that led to the decision for war will be disappointed by this metric. However, given all of the intelligence, did Iraq indeed constitute a sufficiently “clear and present danger” to justify going to war? And will the elimination of Saddam Hussein make the world safer and more secure? These questions should be the principal ones for assessing presidential judgment. Still, the memory of Vietnam lingers as attacks against coalition forces and like-minded Iraqis mount.

The first “v’ word should be put to rest. Iraq is many things. It is not Vietnam. Vietnam was several wars. It was an overt aggression by the north to unify the divided nation by force. It was an insurgency in the south over control of political power there. And it also was a war in which the north cleverly and selectively went about eliminating its opposition in the south regardless of ideological position. Vietnam was also, if not a pawn, a more senior piece in the Cold War struggle — with Soviet and Chinese arms and advisers aiding the regime in Hanoi — than Iraq. Iraq is none of those things, and however the United States may view the dangers of Iran and extremists who may join the fray in unsettling that peace, none remotely has the clout of those old communist adversaries.

Meanwhile, the administration is being increasingly challenged over the intelligence that it used to make the case for war, for lack of preparation and an inability to articulate its plans for the peace, and for, so far, not finding Osama bin Laden, Saddam and those illusive weapons of mass destruction. These are important matters. But they should not constitute the sole grounds for judgment.

Facts are facts. It is irrefutable that the Bush administration came to the conclusion that Saddam was an immediate danger that could not be deferred any longer. Part of that conclusion rested in intelligence. And most was judgment. Along the way, ending Saddam’s loathsome regime was presumed to hold other salutary effects in the war on terror, on countering proliferation and making this nation safer against possible future attack.

In a perfect world, the administration should be assessed on the basis of how clear and present the danger really was and how well or badly postwar Iraq and the region turn out. These mark another difference with Vietnam. In Vietnam, there was the interminable “light at the end of the tunnel,” a Kafkaesque metaphor that proved unreachable.

In Iraq, building a functioning society and putting in place a viable infrastructure are indeed within reach. And, thus far, whatever the level of resistance, it is not augmented with hundreds or even tens of thousands of foreign forces. Hence, the United States and its partners have the opportunity to make good on their promises. And ultimately, or so it goes in theory, unless coalition actions alienate a substantial number of Iraqis and swell the ranks of potential insurgents, the violence is containable and stoppable.

The question is how much patience and endurance both the American people and its government will maintain in Iraq’s difficult transition. So far, the costs in human and other treasure, painful and pricey as they are, do not seem beyond our reach. But these are early days. There will be rushes to judgment to condemn and defend the administration for what it did and did not do. Recall that after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt was accused of knowing about the Japanese sneak attack prior to Dec. 7.

Above all, Americans must be patient. Americans must understand that the United States has no alternative except to persevere and succeed in Iraq. Errors in judgment may or may not be forgivable. Rushing to war over weapons that may never be found will damage this administration. Failure, however, to win the peace in Iraq will damage this nation, possibly gravely.

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