"If the U.S. fails in Iraq," Robert Gates warned as he was sworn in as Secretary of Defense, "it will haunt us for decades."
I don't know whether you mean that as a way to close off discussion, Mr. Secretary, but your comment really made me think. Is it possible, I asked myself, that if we leave Iraq without anything even approaching a victory, that it would have an impact on generations of Presidents, Congresses, and even Secretaries of Defense?
Is it possible that the U.S., having failed at imposing its will on a third-rate power, will, for the remainder of the century, decide to approach difficult situations using non-military options? What a wonderful outcome! If we were haunted by the specter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dying in the war, in civil strife, or as the result of "collateral damage," ( joining the half million children who former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said probably died in the previous decade as a result of sanctions), that would seem, to say the least, appropriate.
Now you've got me on a roll, Mr. Secretary. If we were haunted by failure in Iraq, might that possibly mean that we would in the future abide by the promise we made when we signed the Charter of the United Nations, that we would not launch an aggressive war anymore? Might it mean that we would regard warfare as something which can legally only be entered into by decision of the Security Council? That would indeed be salutary.
If, as we try unsuccessfully to sleep, we are haunted, might we in our sleeplessness rue the outright lies the Administration told-among them the shameful accusations that even as "nice" a general as Colin Powell made before the United Nations about Iraqi WMDs-and resolve to follow the commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor?"
I can't stop! When, over the decades to come, we bite our fingernails as horrible specters assault our memory, might we look back on all the treaties the U.S. broke or signed out of in the past six years-- and the efforts at building international institutions of law and arms reduction that we opted out of-- and decide we're not going to do that anymore? Might we-in order to keep those specters far from our consciences-decide to follow a policy of international cooperation and good neighborliness? Might we return to the international negotiations for a biological weapons convention? Might we return to international agreements on ABMs? And, while we're at it, might we ratify the International Covenant on the Rights of the Child and have another look-see at the Kyoto Treaty and the International Court of Criminal Justice?
It will take all those steps and more, I fear, before we can settle the worst ghost of all, the one that asks the painful question, "How could a nation that had the sympathy of the whole world after September 11 become the most-hated nation on the planet two years later?" That specter makes me shudder the most.
Alfred Krass is Coordinator of the Coalition for Peace Action in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, Pennsylvania.