Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Pre-emptive war is an unmistakable error

Charles M. Madigan

Charles M. Madigan

Published May 8, 2007

We have made a big mistake.

It's not the war in Iraq. I think that is a consequence of our big mistake that seems to be proving with every passing week the degree of our error.

It seems that the early presidential campaign has landed on the question of how quickly we can disconnect from Iraq and bring our troops home.

That is a compelling debate with no easy solutions. It defies "cut-and-run" simplicities on all sides and raises deep questions about the obligations a world power takes on when it goes to war. But as complex as that is, it is not the big problem.

The big problem is the strategy the U.S. embraced with the arrival of the Bush administration to replace deterrence, a Cold War policy that had clearly outlived its usefulness as the Soviet threat cracked, shattered and then disappeared.

Boiled down, it amounts to pre-emptive war. Defuse threats before they cause damage.

It seemed like a good substitute on paper, particularly in light of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration argued, in an important change of direction, that American foreign policy should be aimed at identifying and eliminating these threats.

It might actually have worked, briefly, in Afghanistan, when a CIA-designed reaction led to the ousting of the Taliban, the rousting of Al Qaeda and establishment of what seemed at the time to be a friendlier, more acceptable government. It's not so clear how well that worked now.

The Taliban have revived themselves. The poppy harvest is healthy and moving toward its catastrophic market. The nation is clearly not safely under friendly control.

And yet, we have a crop of GOP presidential candidates competing to make the most hyperbolic statements conceivable about how they would love to kill Osama bin Laden.

It has been almost six years, and he's not dead yet.

At the same time, the war in Iraq has become a rolling, painful, expensive and bloody disaster for us and for the Iraqis. It was constructed on a foundation of bad intelligence, lies and hyperbole. As that has become apparent, support for President Bush, and for the conflict, has withered.

On occasion, someone pops from the woodwork to argue that the war was necessary, that there were weapons of mass destruction, that the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda was genuine. But those arguments have been roundly disproved many times now.

At the heart of all of these problems, I suggest, is the thought that we can use pre-emptive warfare to make the world a safer place. A strong case must be made to carry a nation into war. The record on Iraq shows clearly how propaganda, flawed intelligence and a longing for revenge combined to put us in exactly the wrong place.

Pre-emptive war doesn't work.

If the candidates for the White House really want to begin a crucial political debate, it should center on what America's role in the world should be. Picking the next target and fabricating a foundation for a military campaign isn't going to work. The government's credibility is shattered.

Even assuming good intentions, there is nothing in the pre-emptive war theory that would have identified and stopped a handful of terrorists who had scoped out the weak spots in the American security network. They flew passenger planes right through them.

We also seem to have forgotten lessons that warriors have been learning ever since the British taught the French the bloody effectiveness of the longbow. It's a mistake to keep trying to fight the last war.

We went to Iraq with enough cast iron and high explosives to defeat the Germans again or at least put a dent in the Russians. It was the army we had, unfortunately.

What we found is impassioned, angry locals with car bombs and homemade explosives and an apparently unlimited supply of suicide bombers.

We can win that war by killing everybody, the price we get to pay for beginning a conflict in which the enemy and the innocents are mixed so closely together. There are no smart bombs that can target a teenager in a suicide vest without killing everyone within shrapnel distance.

Add all of this up and what you might conclude is that the theory of pre-emptive war doesn't work against small groups of ideologues and fanatics who are willing to die to make their point. We really do need a different kind of military to cope with the challenges of the dangerous, modern world.

But before the nation resolves that, it must find a new definition for its role in the world. That should be the challenge that candidates wrestle with on the campaign trail.

Our use of military force in Iraq was wrong.

It could take many years to find a decent way to extract our soldiers from that nightmare. The focus should be on making sure it doesn't happen again.


Charles M. Madigan is a Tribune senior correspondent, editor and columnist. E-mail: cmadigan@tribune.com

No comments: