You ached for the president to say something like, “We made some mistakes and our intelligence was far from perfect. But we’re there now, Saddam is gone, and we’ve got to get through the tough times. Experience has made us realistic enough to know we can’t establish instant democracy. Democracy can’t be established from the top, a people has to grow into it. But we can make sure Iraq in the foreseeable future is not the threat we thought it was, and give the Iraqi people a chance.”
Unfortunately, the notes of humility and realism that might have made President Bush’s Tuesday night address and news conference more credible were simply not there. His Wilsonian grand design, the conviction that America’s mission is to bring democracy to a waiting world, prevailed. This, he said, is a “historic opportunity to change the world.”
You can give President Bush points for consistency and staying on message, perhaps. If he had had an inkling of the Sept. 11 attacks, “we would have moved heaven and Earth to save the country.” He asserted that weapons of mass destruction may still be found, just as biological weapons were disclosed in a turkey farm in Libya. But maintaining a position in the face of countervailing facts is not prudent national leadership. In a complex and unpredictable world, the consequences of being bitten by unintended consequences are borne more by the people of the country than by its leaders.
Has the occupation been more difficult and bloody than anybody in the administration acknowledged it might be? Have American military personnel suffered because of a lack of realistic planning by civilian superiors? It matters little if the cause is just, Bush, in effect, argued.
It bears repeating that the idea of going to war to preclude a potential threat that might develop into something genuinely dangerous at some unspecified time in the future is not a good strategy for a country that desires to remain free. Because the world is a dangerous place that is likely always to include people and countries that resent the United States, the U.S. will never lack for potential threats. The strategy of going after them in advance — rather than relying on intelligence and diplomacy until threats become imminent — is a formula for war without end. And a country always at war is a country whose people’s freedom is steadily eroded.
Pre-emptive war, when a threat is genuinely imminent, is justifiable. Preventive war, before threats materialize, is the policy of an imperialist power, no matter how often it is denied.
To his credit, President Bush reassured the U.S. and Iraqis that the pledge to hand over the country on June 30 to some form of Iraqi government will be honored. He outlined a number of milestones after that date, and pledged that the U.S. will not turn away from a responsibility it created.
The lesson, though, is that within the context of a policy of peace and security, opportunities to change the world will present themselves. A conscious policy of seeking ways to change the world leads not to freedom and peace, but to endless strife.