It’s not dark yet

My column "Iraq is not Vietnam" was written two days after we invaded that country. In attempting to debunk the anti-war movement’s myth that Iraq would be another catastrophe for U.S. interests similar to Vietnam, I made several assumptions that may not have been true based on what we now know — first, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to us, and second, that he was actively trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

Our inspectors still have not found WMD, leaving David Kay, head of the Pentagon’s Iraq Survey Team, to conclude that our sanctions may actually have worked to checkmate Saddam Hussein; this despite the best efforts of the Bush administration to put the right spin on the Kay report. The nuclear danger seems to have been equally over-hyped — an admission with which even the White House appears now to agree. So the drumbeat from the Howard Dean left is again making comparisons to Vietnam.

More importantly for the ramifications in 2004, has Dean been right all along and Bush wrong?

Partisan politics shades the truth. Based on the intelligence at the time, it was entirely reasonable for the President to conclude that Saddam posed a threat to our national security. It’s easy to forget, in the light of what has happened since we invaded Iraq, but the notion that Saddam had WMD was not something dreamed up by the Bush White House; it was believed by both the Clinton administration and the United Nations.

The Dean left likes to claim that somehow Bush concocted the war to gain popularity. Actually, nothing poses a bigger threat to Bush’s reelection than Iraq in terms of the cost of American lives and the drain on the economy.

The Dean left is also critical of the cost of going forward with the rest of Kay’s hunt for WMD. But we must find out the truth once and for all. Are there any WMD? If not, were there ever? If so, what happened to them?

Dean as the frontrunner has caused some of the other Democratic candidates, who know better, to vote against the $87 billion required to rebuild Iraq. Some claim it’s because they feel Bush deceived them. Others say they don’t want to give the President a blank check. Only Lieberman and Gephardt stuck by their guns and, in so doing, may have sounded the death knell for their hopes of winning the nomination.

But Bush has been painfully specific about what the $87B will be used for, and it is sheer political demagoguery to talk about using that money for needs here at home. Whether you believe the invasion was necessary or not (and I am no longer as certain), we have a moral and financial obligation not to abandon Iraq. Perhaps even more importantly, we have strategic reasons for not leaving. And that is where this still differs from Vietnam.

We were able to leave Vietnam because Vietnam never was central to our national security. We can’t walk away from Iraq because we can’t walk away from the Middle East. Even Howard Dean doesn’t make the claim that the Middle East is not relevant to the security interests of this country.

This doesn’t mean that George W. Bush has not screwed up in Iraq. He has royally screwed up winning the peace. The Bush administration has been totally unprepared for the consequences of the invasion. The President and his top advisers are fond of reminding us that WMD have not yet been found because Iraq is the size of California. Yet they still argue that 133,000 American troops are enough to secure the peace.

I read an analysis that showed that of the 133,000, only about 56,000 are actually combat troops. The rest are support forces. Of the 56,000, only about half are on duty at a given time during a 24-hour period, while the others are resting. That leaves 28,000 combat troops on duty at any one time in an area the size of California. There are 39,000 police on duty in New York City. The facts seem inescapable: We need more troops.

The truth is we bought this war and we should be willing to pay for it. Bush has failed the leadership test. He has deluded us and himself into believing we are winning the peace when each day events prove otherwise. Unless we can secure Iraq from the terrorists, no amount of rebuilding will bring democracy.

But both the President and his leading challenger have made it politically difficult to win the peace — Bush, by insisting we have sufficient military forces to secure the country, and Dean by his own self-delusion that we can turn everything over to the UN and leave.

It is not too late to save Iraq, but time is not on our side. As Bob Dylan wrote, "It ain’t dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there."