A war policy in collapse

James Carroll, The Boston Globe (3/4/03)

What a difference a month makes. On Feb. 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the Bush administration's case against Iraq with a show of authority that moved many officials and pundits out of ambivalence and into acceptance. The war came to seem inevitable, which then prompted millions of people to express their opposition in streets around the globe.

Over subsequent weeks, the debate between hawks and doves took on the strident character of ideologues beating each other with fixed positions. The sputtering rage of war opponents and the grandiose abstractions of war advocates both seemed disconnected from the relentless marshaling of troops. War was coming. Further argument was fruitless. The time seemed to have arrived, finally, for a columnist to change the subject.

And then the events of last week. Within a period of a few days, the war policy of the Bush administration suddenly showed signs of incipient collapse. No one of these developments by itself marks the ultimate reversal of fortune for Bush, but taken together, they indicate that the law of "unintended consequences," which famously unravels the best-laid plans of warriors, may apply this time before the war formally begins. Unraveling is underway. Consider what happened as February rolled into March:

* Tony Blair forcefully criticized George W. Bush for his obstinacy on global environmental issues, a truly odd piece of timing for such criticism from a key ally yet a clear effort to get some distance from Washington. Why now?

* The president's father chose to give a speech affirming the importance both of multinational cooperation and of realism in dealing with the likes of Saddam Hussein. To say, as the elder Bush did, that getting rid of Hussein in 1991 was not the most important thing is to raise the question of why it has become the absolute now.

* For the first time since the crisis began, Iraq actually began to disarm, destroying Al Samoud 2 missiles and apparently preparing to bring weapons inspectors into the secret world of anthrax and nerve agents. The Bush administration could have claimed this as a victory on which to mount further pressure toward disarmament.

* Instead, the confirmed destruction of Iraqi arms prompted Washington to couple its call for disarmament with the old, diplomatically discredited demand for regime change. Even an Iraq purged of weapons of mass destruction would not be enough to avoid war. Predictably, Iraq then asked, in effect, why Hussein should take steps to disarm if his government is doomed in any case? Bush's inconsistency on this point - disarmament or regime change? - undermined the early case for war. That it reappears now, obliterating Powell's argument of a month ago, is fatal to the moral integrity of the prowar position.

* The Russian foreign minister declared his nation's readiness to use its veto in the Security Council to thwart American hopes for a UN ratification of an invasion.

* Despite Washington's offer of many billions in aid, the Turkish Parliament refused to approve US requests to mount offensive operations from bases in Turkey - the single largest blow against US war plans yet. This failure of Bush diplomacy, eliminating a second front, might be paid for in American lives.

* The capture in Pakistan of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a senior Al Qaeda operative, should have been only good news to the Bush administration, but it highlighted the difference between the pursuit of Sept. 11 culprits and the unrelated war against Iraq. Osama bin Laden, yes. Saddam Hussein, no.

* Administration officials, contradicting military projections and then refusing in testimony before Congress to estimate costs and postwar troop levels, put on display either the administration's inadequate preparation or its determination, through secrecy, to thwart democratic procedures - choose one.

* In other developments, all highlighting Washington's panicky ineptness, the Philippines rejected the help of arriving US combat forces, North Korea apparently prepared to start up plutonium production, and Rumsfeld ordered the actual deployment of missile defense units in California and Alaska, making the absurd (and as of now illegal) claim that further tests are unnecessary.

All of this points to an administration whose policies are confused and whose implementations are incompetent. The efficiency with which the US military is moving into position for attack is impressive; thousands of uniformed Americans are preparing to carry out the orders of their civilian superiors with diligence and courage. But the hollowness of that civilian leadership, laid bare in the disarray of last week's news, is breathtaking.

That the United States of America should be on the brink of such an ill-conceived, unnecessary war is itself a crime. The hope now is that - even before the war has officially begun - its true character is already manifesting itself, which could be enough, at last, to stop it.