Politics & Prose July 2005

Bush's Folly

How could the billions going toward Iraq be better spent? Let us count the ways

Last week every Republican Senator voted against a Democratic amendment earmarking $1 billion for mass-transit security—surveillance cameras, bomb-detection equipment, dogs, and the like. The vote came during a week in which we spent $1 billion on a war that Republican senator Chuck Hagel says we are losing. Billions for Iraq, not one penny for subways the week after the London subway bombings.

If we stay in Iraq until 2010 or 2012, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has warned we might, Bush's folly could consume a trillion dollars. That money not only could pay for safer subways and other homeland defenses but finance a novel strategy in the "war on terror"—addressing the root causes of terrorism.

The Bush strategy is to kill them there before they can attack us here. But the "them" fighting us "there" are nationalist insurgents using Sunni suicide bombers from Saudi Arabia and Jordan—U.S. allies—to bring down Iraq's predominantly Shiite government. Our being there created "them." To be safe from them, all we have to do is leave Iraq.

The "them" we have to worry about here are ideas and their human vessels—young Muslim men alienated from their host or natal Western societies, men like Mohammed Atta, the son of an Egyptian doctor who led the September 11 hijackers, and men like the cricket-playing bombers from Leeds. "What we are confronting ... is an evil ideology," Tony Blair said of the poison in the minds of the suicide bombers. "It is not a clash of civilizations—all civilized people, Muslim or other, feel revulsion at it. But it is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas, hearts and minds, both within Islam and outside it."

Imagine if the Iraq trillion were spent fighting that war. Would you rather spend a billion a week in Iraq for the next five years or buy up every "loose nuke" in the countries of the former Soviet Union, keeping the world's evilest weapons from falling into the hands of men imbued with evil ideology? Iraq, or secure our porous borders using the National Guard. Iraq, or harden our nuclear, chemical, and electric plants. Iraq, or fund a Manhattan Project-style green energy program, ending the dependence on Saudi oil that in the wake of the Persian Gulf War made us base combat troops in Saudi Arabia, which led to the September 11 attacks and the current war. Iraq, or pour our intellectual and Madison Avenue resources into a campaign to change Muslim hearts and minds. Picking up on a Defense Intelligence Board finding that Arabs value "justice" more than "democracy," that campaign should be built around justice for the Palestinians—homes for every homeless Palestinian refugee, nation-building deluxe—and for Egyptians and for Saudis, whose regime we'll be freer to confront over its sponsorship of anti-Western extremism as we move toward energy independence. Iraq, or help Israel finance its withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank and secure its borders. Billions into Iraq, or billions into human intelligence, bribes, and other devices to expose terrorist networks.

The Iraq intervention not only diverts resources that could buy us real security but, as a recent CIA report confirmed, is recruiting a new generation of terrorists and affording them on-the-job training in urban warfare. Iraq belongs in a class of strategic perversity all its own. The Vietnam War was at least logically congruent with our objectives in the Cold War—to stop Communist aggression and, by showing we would bleed, to preserve the credibility sustaining nuclear deterrence. Iraq undercuts what should be our strategic priority—containing and defusing the nuclear threat of our time, Islamist extremism. Indeed it arms that bomb.

"In the final analysis," John F. Kennedy told NBC's Chet Huntley in his last public interview on Vietnam, "it's their war, and their country." The South Vietnamese had to fight it themselves for themselves. So do the Iraqis. With our troops there, why should they fight? The administration says we can't leave before they are "trained," but that puts technique, which can improve tactical performance, ahead of motivation, which wins wars. American training saps Iraqi motivation. Not a few of the Iraqi trainees, moreover, work for the insurgents, some because of intimidation, others from choice. How does training them help us? More and more, "training" looks like a cover for a semi-permanent U.S. presence in Iraq.

Our presence gives the Shiite majority no incentive to make the kinds of concessions to the Sunni minority necessary to end the insurgency. Militarily and politically, we are in the way. Bad things will continue to happen in Iraq after we leave, but by leaving we can free up resources to do good things in compensation. As for the Iraqis, the tyrant is gone; the rest is up to them. In the final analysis, while it may be our war, it's their country.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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