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Wed, Jan. 22

Iraq invasion was not the smart approach

Saddam was a brutal dictator and Iraq is better off without him. But this was not about terrorism or weapons or a brutal dictator.

Even before 9/11 a number of key people in the White House wanted to invade Iraq. They are part of a think tank (www.newamericancentury.org.) It is not some conspiracy, just a clique of like-minded people with mistaken ideas.

Their plan was to invade Iraq, and they expected it would quickly become a democracy whose people would love the U.S., one with a rich economy like ours which, by the way, would be profitable to many U.S. companies.

That in turn was supposed to make surrounding countries follow suit. There's a grain of truth there. If Iraq became a democracy it would be a positive influence on the area. But trying to impose all this by war was the wrong way to do it, costly in a host of ways, and will have unintended long-term consequences.

(Libya's renouncing weapons of mass destruction may seem to contradict this, but we haven't been threatening them so we must attribute this to their desperate need for money and trade relations.)

A key ideological split of this era is between those for international cooperation, versus those for throwing our weight around, whether it's for good intentions or raw ambition.

We may yet find there was some communication between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. I wouldn't be surprised if there hasn't been some with many countries in the region. al-Qaeda probably finds a sympathetic ear but none who desire a "working relationship".

If terrorism was our primary concern we would have many higher priorities than Iraq. If it was weapons of mass destruction we could have let the inspections continue aggressively and avoided the war. (Notice that we rushed in while inspections were revealing there were no weapons, as if we wanted to get in before anything undermined that rationale.) If it was Hussein we were concerned about, the emasculating process of inspections, the revelation that there were no weapons, or that we destroyed them, and that his regime was a shell, would have encouraged internal opposition to see how weak he was and turn on him. Then regime change would be an entirely Iraqi matter and we wouldn't be paying the price of it.

This is not about appeasement. It was right to go after al-Qaeda (we should have done it sooner), to push the Taliban out of the way when they stood between us and al-Qaeda, to aggressively bottle up Hussein and inspect and verify that he was indeed neutered. Nor does international cooperation mean we give up the right to protect ourselves.

But there are smart ways and dumb ways to go at this. This situation was created by a long history of throwing our weight around in the Middle East. That is part of why Hussein was as powerful and ambitious as he once was (we supported him against Iran, who was our enemy because we'd messed in their affairs before). It is part of why the Taliban ran Afghanistan (we supported them against the Russians). An accumulation of many such actions is why some hate us so much.

There are a number of open, honest, cooperative, smart ways to pursue worthwhile goals, such as being far more supportive of relatively democratic countries such as Jordan and less so of autocratic countries such as Saudi Arabia.

But to suppose once again we can force our desired outcome is just a continuation of that long failed policy and its unintended consequences.

This war, this whole approach to dealing with the world, has been, and will be, enormously costly, particularly when compared to the benefits of the alternative approach. The capture of Hussein does not change that.

Tom Cantlon's column appears every other Monday. www.tomcantlon.com

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