August 21, 2003
A Price Too High
By BOB HERBERT
How long is it going to take for us to recognize that the war we so foolishly started in Iraq is a fiasco — tragic, deeply dehumanizing and ultimately unwinnable? How much time and how much money and how many wasted lives is it going to take?
At the United Nations yesterday, grieving diplomats spoke bitterly, but not for attribution, about the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. They said it has not only resulted in the violent deaths of close and highly respected colleagues, but has also galvanized the most radical elements of Islam.
"This is a dream for the jihad," said one high-ranking U.N. official. "The resistance will only grow. The American occupation is now the focal point, drawing people from all over Islam into an eye-to-eye confrontation with the hated Americans.
"It is very propitious for the terrorists," he said. "The U.S. is now on the soil of an Arab country, a Muslim country, where the terrorists have all the advantages. They are fighting in a terrain which they know and the U.S. does not know, with cultural images the U.S. does not understand, and with a language the American soldiers do not speak. The troops can't even read the street signs."
The American people still do not have a clear understanding of why we are in Iraq. And the troops don't have a clear understanding of their mission. We're fighting a guerrilla war, which the bright lights at the Pentagon never saw coming, with conventional forces.
Under these circumstances, in which the enemy might be anybody, anywhere, tragedies like the killing of Mazen Dana are all but inevitable. Mr. Dana was the veteran Reuters cameraman who was blown away by jittery U.S. troops on Sunday. The troops apparently thought his video camera was a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
The mind plays tricks on you when you're in great danger. A couple of weeks ago, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, U.S. soldiers killed two members of the Iraqi police. And a number of innocent Iraqi civilians, including children, have been killed by American troops.
The carnage from riots, ambushes, firefights, suicide bombings, acts of sabotage, friendly fire incidents and other deadly encounters is growing. And so is the hostility toward U.S. troops and Americans in general.
We are paying a terribly high price — for what?
One of the many reasons Vietnam spiraled out of control was the fact that America's top political leaders never clearly defined the mission there, and were never straight with the public about what they were doing. Domestic political considerations led Kennedy, then Johnson, then Nixon to conceal the truth about a policy that was bankrupt from the beginning. They even concealed how much the war was costing.
Now we're lodged in Iraq, in the midst of the most volatile region of the world, and the illusion of a quick victory followed by grateful Iraqis' welcoming us with open arms has vanished. Instead of democracy blossoming in the desert, we have the reality of continuing bloodshed and heightened terror — the payoff of a policy spun from fantasies and lies.
Senator John McCain and others are saying the answer is more troops, an escalation. If you want more American blood shed, that's the way to go. We sent troops to Vietnam by the hundreds of thousands. There were never enough.
Beefing up the American occupation is not the answer to the problem. The American occupation is the problem. The occupation is perceived by ordinary Iraqis as a confrontation and a humiliation, and by terrorists and other bad actors as an opportunity to be gleefully exploited.
The U.S. cannot bully its way to victory in Iraq. It needs allies, and it needs a plan. As quickly as possible, we should turn the country over to a genuine international coalition, headed by the U.N. and supported in good faith by the U.S.
The idea would be to mount a massive international effort to secure Iraq, develop a legitimate sovereign government and work cooperatively with the Iraqi people to rebuild the nation.
If this does not happen, disaster will loom because the United States cannot secure and rebuild Iraq on its own.
A U.N. aide told me: "The United States is the No. 1 enemy of the Muslim world, and right now it's sitting on the terrorists' doorstep. It needs help. It needs friends."