In the Arena

Five Years After

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Here is the column I wrote five years ago as the war began. In retrospect, I made several obvious mistakes–namely, the assumption that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The most regrettable sentence in the piece is this one:

Hans Blix’s inspection regime wasn’t nearly as muscular as it needed to be.

That was wrong. The UN’s actions in the runup to the war were precise and admirable. The Bush Administration’s actions were not. And while it was clear that I had a sense that there was trouble ahead–and an idea about the precise (sectarian) nature of that trouble–I was clueless as to the historic disaster the war would become, and couldn’t imagine the utter incompetence of the Bush Administration in trying to restore order. The military decision to spare the power plants in Iraq, which I touted in the first paragraph, proved moot as those plants were rendered useless by looters and, later, by insurgents. Clearly, the column was written with the assumption that the war was “winnable.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. It wasn’t and isn’t.

And yet, I do take some solace from the non-triumphalist tone of the column and especially from the last two paragraphs, which hold up pretty well five years later:

Europe is where the bulk of history happened in the 20th century, at least as Americans perceived it. Asia is where it will take place in the 21st — in Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, China and Japan, not to mention Iran, North Korea and the floating fester of Islamic radicalism. The saga began last week in Iraq, a country that may soon be perceived as an American showcase, whether we like it or not. Iraq’s reconstruction will be as symbolically important as West Germany’s was after World War II, but it will be a much tougher project. With three vehement ethnic and religious groups within, and Islamic radicals in the hills nearby, it looks more like Yugoslavia than Germany. In that sense, Iraq predicts the complexities of Asia: the religions, cultures and traditions of governance are profoundly different from ours, the chances of lethal misunderstandings far greater than they were in Europe. President Bush seemed to dismiss this concern in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26: “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world…is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different, yet the human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth.”
But surely it is not presumptuous to suggest that freedom isn’t easily imposed by outsiders, that it is nurtured slowly and indigenously and may develop in ways that we find strange. A disciplined American humility will be essential, and the reconstruction of Iraq is the first test. Will we welcome other countries as partners — and take the edge off the occupation by inviting the U.N. to play an active role in rebuilding the government — or will we run it arrogantly, unilaterally, colonially? The second test, an evenhanded effort to resolve the Middle East conflict, will be harder still. Beyond those will be many others, and the challenge will often be the same: Can we learn to use diplomacy as exquisitely as we do force? The American military taught a lesson by example last week: it is far better for others to wave our flag in tribute than for us to wave it in triumph.