Bush's big gamble: Iraq invasion could change all the rules

By David Von Drehle
The Washington Post

The world could be facing a threshold moment with the U.S.-led coalition poised on the brink of invading Iraq even without clear support from the United Nations. The risks of such a pre-emptive strike against Iraq are high and the results unassured, but there is no doubt that America, and its place in the world, would be changed.

WASHINGTON — 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 U.S. 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.

Cycle in history

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 — 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, would 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.

An exercise in waiting

For more than 50 years after the cataclysm of World War II, a shaky peace was maintained by forming alliances, issuing threats and slowly, patiently exerting pressure. The Cold War was an exercise in waiting. A lexicon of waiting words defined U.S. strategy, words such as "contain," and "deter," and "erode." The United States rarely attacked.

Now, the Bush administration has announced that the old way is inadequate in the face of new threats posed by global terrorism. Peace, in the administration's view, requires risking alliances if need be, escalating beyond threats sometimes, removing some enemies who might once have been contained. To the slow work of the vise, Bush is adding the sharp blow of the hammer.

Until it falls, no one can say precisely how much the hammer will smash.

If the experts are right and this is a threshold moment for the United States and the world, then shelves of books will be written about how it came to pass.

Those with the long view might begin as far back as 1916, when France and Britain first started haggling over Western influence in what is now Iraq. A middle-length version could begin in 1990 and 1991, with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the Persian Gulf War to expel his forces.

"Historians will look back someday and see this not as two wars, but as the conclusion of a 13-year-long war," said Daniel Yergin, a leading authority on global economics and oil.

The short version will begin with Bush's January 2002 State of the Union speech, when he widened his scope in the terrorism war from al-Qaida and Afghanistan to take in the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an "axis of evil" — Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Few observers outside the Bush circle recognized then how quickly the president would home in on Iraq. Nor, apparently, did Bush realize how ready North Korea and Iran would be to sprint toward the nuclear clubhouse while the world focused on Baghdad.

Four months later, in a commencement speech at West Point, the president announced that "the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment" must give way to "new thinking. ... We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign nonproliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."

This idea — that some prospective threats must be dealt with pre-emptively — was then expressed as formal policy in September. The world finally heard what Bush was saying, saw that Saddam was the test case, and, in many countries, took a dim view of a U.S. hyperpower conducting pre-emptive wars.

Through six months of often-rancorous diplomacy and street protests, critics of the Bush policy have resisted more and more fiercely. The administration has tried, intermittently, to explain Iraq in terms of past breaches of international law and ongoing crimes against humanity. But having planted the idea that this war is intended to vindicate a new policy of pre-emption, there is no unsaying it.

High stakes

The chips are now heaped in the center of the table.

The same geopolitics that have had Western powers haggling over Iraq for decades still apply. Onto that, radical jihadists have added the high stakes of suicidal terrorism. And atop that, Bush has piled the explosive idea of pre-emptive war by the world's sole superpower. A coalition of countries — France, Russia, Germany and others — has added a layer of unprecedented resistance to U.S. leadership.

However the world arrived at this point, we are here. Bush has staked his own credibility on ousting Saddam. He has marshaled the nervous support of a majority of Americans — even as their gloom about the home front deepens — and he has raised an unusual, but not negligible, coalition of international allies. The next step appears inevitable: "The cards," as Bush put it in his recent news conference, will be "on the table."

"What's about to unfold is going to be transformative for the Middle East, for American relations with Europe and for the United States itself," Yergin ventured.

For better or worse, the guessing will end, and the results will begin to be known.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company