Saturday, February 24, 2007

When then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte published his Annual Threat Assessment last month, he admitted a startling fact. We know where al Qaeda’s leaders are hiding.

“Al Qaeda’s core elements are resilient,” he wrote. “They continue to plot attacks against our homeland and other targets with the objective of inflicting mass casualties. And they continue to maintain active connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders’ secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and Europe.”

Interestingly, no leader of either party has called for invading Pakistan to shut down this “secure hideout” for the people who attacked America on September 11, 2001.

Keeping that in mind, consider something Sen. John McCain said Monday about former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement, that’s the kindest word I can give you, of Donald Rumsfeld, of this war,” said Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican. “I think Donald Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.”

But which is more responsible for the tough situation we face in Iraq today: Donald Rumsfeld’s management of the military or the assignment of that military to an impractical political mission promoted by John McCain and President Bush?

Under Mr. Rumsfeld, our armed forces swiftly accomplished the core military mission in Iraq. They removed the perceived threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. After that, the U.S. mission in Iraq was essentially political, not military — and in Mr. McCain’s view that meant a U.S. “commitment to revolutionary democratic change.”

This was central to the moral case for the war, Mr. McCain argued in a March 2003 op-ed in The Washington Post: “The true test of our power, and much of the moral basis for its use, lies not simply in ending dictatorship but in helping the Iraqi people construct a democratic future. This is what sets us aside from empire builders: the use of power for moral purpose.” As nice as this may sound, it is wrong.

There is only one moral justification for war: self-defense. And self-defense alone is not sufficient. A war of self-defense must also be a last resort, have a reasonable chance of success and cannot be anticipated to cause more damage than it prevents.

For this reason, the virtue that ought to govern in war, as in all areas of foreign policy, is prudence, which means knowing the facts as well as they can be known, accurately foreseeing the consequences of alternative courses of action and then choosing the course that leads to the best result.

Famously, the CIA got the facts wrong about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. That caused the national debate on whether to use force against Iraq to be based on an inaccurate assessment of the threat Iraq posed. But Mr. McCain also based his case for war on an inaccurate assessment of the chances the United States could create a democracy in Iraq.

” ‘Experts’ who dismiss hopes for Iraqi democracy as naive and the campaign to liberate Iraq’s people as dangerously destabilizing do not explain why they believe Iraqis or Arabs are uniquely unsuited to representative government, and they betray a cultural bigotry that ill serves our interests and values,” Mr. McCain wrote.

In fact, there were serious reasons before the war to conclude it would be difficult to establish a stable government in Iraq, let alone a democracy, if Saddam were removed. One reason was Iraq’s well-known ethnic-sectarian divisions — Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd — and the historic tensions between them. Another was that Iraq was the birthplace of Shi’ite Islamism, and that many of Saddam’s tyrannical acts had been aimed at suppressing leading Shi’ite Islamists, some of whom had fled to Iran where they plotted an Islamic revolution for their homeland.

It was one thing to conclude the threat posed by Saddam was great enough to run the risks of destabilizing Iraq. It was another to accuse of “cultural bigotry” those who did not discount that risk.

So back to the question: Should the failure thus far to establish a stable democracy in Iraq be blamed on the management of U.S. troops, or was the concept of using U.S. troops to create an Iraqi democracy flawed?

The fact that not even John McCain is now calling for sending U.S. forces into Pakistan — a nuclear-armed Islamic country run by a pro-American general who originally took power in a coup — to shut down a sanctuary for the leaders of al Qaeda points to an answer.

Sometimes the pursuit of a just cause, no matter how well managed, can cause more problems than it solves.

Terence P. Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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