A Turning Point In History

Bush Bets Future on Success in Iraq (washingtonpost.com)
September 11th was a turning point in history. The fullness of our response to the threat will be demonstrated by how we handle Iraq. We won’t be deterred by the UN, acquaintances such as France or European public opinion. There are dangers in taking this approach — it could go horribly wrong — and the rest of the world would be unlikely to want to help us. Likewise, if it goes very well the nay-sayers will be left trying to explain why containment of a state-sponsor of terrorism pursuing nuclear weapons is a better alternative than ridding the world of the threat altogether.

Success will mean spreading liberal values — even if they must be watered down slightly to accommodate Muslim culture — and increased security for the rest of the world, most importantly the United States. It will also deal what I hope is a fatal blow to this idea that the United Nations is somehow capable of providing security for the world.

There is debate on nearly every aspect of the crisis over Iraq — except the idea that, for better or worse, the stakes have become very, very high.

Walter Russell Mead, a distinguished historian of American foreign policy, compared this moment to the birth of the Cold War around 1948, and before that to the Spanish-American War of 1898, which established the United States as a world power. “We’re definitely in a period of major change,” he said.

Mead supports the administration’s policy on Iraq. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, opposes it. But she agreed on the scale: “Is this 1914?” she asked, recalling another crucial moment, when overeager leaders plunged the world into a disastrous war.

By accident or design, President Bush has allowed Iraq to become the gamble of a lifetime. Today, The Washington Post summarizes what’s at stake in four areas of crucial national interest — America’s stature, Middle East politics, the war on terrorism and conditions at home.

A less than gleaming outcome in Iraq could, in the view of many experts, inflame terror, weaken our alliances, diminish the United States and collapse confidence in our economy — which is already at its lowest point in more than a decade. Even a successful result contains risks in the eyes of those who have pondered the recurring cycle in human history in which power leads to hubris, hubris leads to overreaching, and overreaching leads to collapse. Victory could tempt the United States to overreach.

Against this, Bush has set the rubble of Sept. 11, 2001. The status quo, he reminds the world, is also fraught with risk. Success in Iraq, he has said, could pay off handsomely — by liberating a strategically placed country from a despot, sowing modernity in the heart of the Middle East, and imposing a severe price on a state that nurtures terrorist jihads and pursues banned weapons.

Whether the United States, and the world, will be better or worse off after a war in Iraq is a matter of conjecture on which very experienced, expert people strongly disagree. Where some envision suicide terrorists with radioactive bombs, rising inflation and gasoline shortages, others picture a burst of economic enthusiasm at home and a chastening of rogue nations abroad.

But if the process toward war continues as it has been moving, and the U.S.-led coalition invades Iraq without clear support from the United Nations, there is no doubt that America, and its place in the world, will have changed. And so there is a sense in these tense days that existing rules are being broken — or rewritten, updated, smashed or subverted. The verb you choose speaks volumes about your viewpoint.

The chance that our new strategy will result in “imperial overreach” is small for two reasons:

1. We are not colonialists but liberators and are not seeking new territory. We will occupy Iraq for purposes of seeing that reforms take hold and seeing that a stable government takes hold as well.
2. Our mission is well-defined: end state-sponsorship of terrorism, particularly if the state is also pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

Within these limitations we can make our own country more secure and, as a byproduct, make countries that were once tyrannies into free countries.

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