Thursday, February 13, 2003

The visions that hawks dream of. Nicholas Lemann has an important piece in the New Yorker this week on the cock-eyed optimists who occupy the high-middle layers of the Bush administration. Their hope: that war with Iraq will result in a new, semi-democratic state that will lead to significant, pro-Western change throughout the Middle East.

Lemann talks with Douglas Feith and Stephen Cambone, both of whom are leading hawks in the Department of Defense. Feith is more expansive than Cambone, and this exchange with Lemann is particularly instructive regarding the hawks' thinking:

I asked Feith whether the United States, if it goes to war, would be doing so partly because it wants to change the Middle East as a whole. "Perhaps I should put it this way," he said. "Would anybody be thinking about using military power in Iraq in order to do a political experiment in Iraq in the hope that it would have positive political spillover effects throughout the region? The answer is no. That's not the kind of thing that leads a country like the United States to commit the kind of military forces that we're committing to this effort -- right now, to try to make our diplomacy work, but ultimately, perhaps, if the diplomacy doesn't work, to take military action. There's no way. What we would be using military power for, if we have to, would be the goals the President has talked about, particularly the elimination of the chemical and biological weapons, and preventing Iraq from getting nuclear weapons." He paused for a moment. "Now. Once you contemplate using military force for that purpose, and you're thinking about what do you do afterward, that's when you can think that if we do things right, and if we help the Iraqis, and if the Iraqis show an ability to create a humane representative government for themselves -- will that have beneficial spillover effects on the politics of the whole region? The answer, I think, is yes."

It is a lovely vision, which is precisely why I'm so wary of it. As Lemann says of this and other post-Iraq scenarios put forth by the hawks, "It is breathtakingly ambitious and optimistic." And more to the point, it says nothing about the other possible outcomes of a US invasion: thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, and resultant cries for terrorist revenge; Saddam Hussein's using his chemical and biological weapons against US troops, as well as targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia; and a generation's worth of chaos.

During the past week, Colin Powell has done much to show that current efforts to contain Saddam are failing. And it is clear that, like it or not, this war is going to take place. It's going to take realism and humility (the latter formerly one of George W. Bush's favorite words) to get through this with as little damage to the Iraqi people and to the US as possible -- not the beautiful visions of Pentagon dreamers.

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