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Second Thoughts from Neoconservatives

July 13, 2005

A number of weblogs have linked to Elliot Cohen’s Sunday Op-Ed in the Washington Post, “A Hawk Questions Himself.” Cohen defends the basic rationale for the war, but slams the administration for its poor implementation of the Iraq occupation. Key quotation:

But a pundit should not recommend a policy without adequate regard for the ability of those in charge to execute it, and here I stumbled. I could not imagine, for example, that the civilian and military high command would treat “Phase IV” — the post-combat period that has killed far more Americans than the “real” war — as of secondary importance to the planning of Gen. Tommy Franks’s blitzkrieg. I never dreamed that Ambassador Paul Bremer and Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the two top civilian and military leaders early in the occupation of Iraq — brave, honorable and committed though they were — would be so unsuited for their tasks, and that they would serve their full length of duty nonetheless. I did not expect that we would begin the occupation with cockamamie schemes of creating an immobile Iraqi army to defend the country’s borders rather than maintain internal order, or that the under-planned, under-prepared and in some respects mis-manned Coalition Provisional Authority would seek to rebuild Iraq with big construction contracts awarded under federal acquisition regulations, rather than with small grants aimed at getting angry, bewildered young Iraqi men off the streets and into jobs.

I did not know, but I might have guessed.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a sentiment like this around Washington, DC, I’d be able to buy myself this, this, this, and this. In other words, I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d have some nice new goodies.

The really impressive thing about Cohen’s editorial is his admission that he “might have guessed.” Usually, this kind of mea culpa is coupled with the equivalent of “I had no way of knowing.” Which just isn’t true. Democrats may have sounded tinny when they were complaining about the lack of preparation for the war in the summer of 2002, but they’ve been more than vindicated by events.

Nevertheless, I do wish Cohen hadn’t written this: “the Bush administration did itself a disservice by resting much of its case for war on Iraq’s actual possession of weapons of mass destruction.” The Bush administration did not, principally, do itself a disservice; it did the American people a disservice. By justifying the war on grounds that were, at best, not very compelling (Hussein was not about to give nuclear weapons to terrorists to attack New York) and, at worst, dishonest, the administration undermined democratic decision-making; it may also have, in the long term, undermined popular support for staying the course in Iraq.

More importantly, however, the Bush administration undermined American credibility. Remember Powell’s presentation at the UN? Remember the reaction of the other members of the Security Council? The French were right that it was nonsense (scroll down to the February 5 box). From a foreign-policy perspective, that’s not the outcome the US really wants, now is it?

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.