Critics of the war were vindicated this week as the Bush administration hoisted the white flag, signaling the surrender of the most presumptuous of its several misfired premises of the Iraq war – the illusion that somehow, the United States could go it alone in the reconstruction of the country. Bush's critics should be gratified, not for partisan reasons but for what this surrender says about Americans – as a country born of an anti-imperialist revolution we make lousy imperialists. Frankly, we're too decent to engage in the ruthless slaughter of natives necessary to maintain one's imperial authority (think battle of Obdurman) and we're too scared to commit too many troops for too long (think Great Britain's 200 year occupation of India).
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As the Bush administration circulates a draft Security Council resolution inviting the U.N. to take the lead with a multinational force, what is sorrowful about all this – and especially sad in view of the young Americans killed since Bush declared major hostilities "over" – is how predictable this move was. Of course, this is just another way of saying how unnecessary the Bush administration's self-defeating unilateralism was in the first place. Sure, sure, the French were perfidious, the Russians double-dealing, the Canadians faint-hearted, the Europeans generally whiney, the Mexicans fair-weather friends, and all of the rest. But effective (think adult) diplomacy has never been based on whether or not one likes the other guy – rather, it rests on whether or not one needs the other guy. And Bush's proposed surrender to the U.N. is really just a belated recognition of reality.
Think of the price we have paid for our initial surliness, followed by the fantasy that we could go it alone. What I call "belated recognition" is something entirely different to the families of the brave American troops killed or grievously wounded in Iraq since last May. For them, Bush administration diplomacy – or the lack of diplomacy – has failed miserably. I am certainly not blaming President Bush for their deaths. But since an entirely predictable consequence of Bush's unilateralism has been to make American (and to a far lesser extent, British) soldiers the only targets for the Baathist Party remnants and the crazed jihadists who are now flooding into the country, Bush does need to account for the failure of his Iraq unilateralism. Especially given that the failure was so foreseeable, even by Bush loyalists. Former national security Adviser under Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, outlined the case against invading Iraq in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 15, 2002. His op-ed now reads like a road map for the train wreck that characterizes post-war Iraq.
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But there will be other consequences to Bush's delay in removing his blinders. Aside from the humiliating "I told you sos" coming from around the world (especially the dreaded French and liberal English press), the price of Bush returning to the U.N. hat-in-hand will probably be much higher now than would have been the case one year ago. According to reports, Bush will try to save the leadership role for Ambassador Paul Bremer III as well as overall U.S. military control and control over the country's reconstruction. That will be more difficult now, because the various nations – who might have been skillfully played off one another a year ago – today know that it's not a beggar's market. And they will charge accordingly – they'll want political say-so, a bigger slice of the oil and reconstruction contracts as well as the credit if things work. In a way, it's like a marathon contestant who slips into the pack two miles before the finish and claims the laurels. But let's face it – we have only our own failed policy of unilateralism to blame.
At the same time, it must be said better late than never. According to published reports, the Bush administration's draft resolution will elevate the role and importance of the Iraqi Governing Council in developing a plan to give their country a stable government. This is all to the good, because our ultimate exit plan should be to give Iraq back to the Iraqis. Another important effect of the resolution is that it gives us the opportunity, under the U.N.'s blessing, to solicit all-important support for peacekeeping operations from other Muslim countries. Once the Baathists and jihadists find that they cannot "Americanize" the Iraq war – that is, if not the war, then certainly the peace is supported by the entire community of nations – it removes the most important prop the crazies possess.
Nevertheless, President Bush must answer for his failure. It's not just politics, either. We are engaged in an ongoing war against terrorism. If our decision-making was flawed in Iraq, unless Bush fully accounts for his mistakes, we run the risk of having the same flawed process for future operations.