Healthy Skepticism

Recently, Andrew Sullivan was good enough to quote my last column -- in which I argued for continued opposition to the war in Iraq -- on his Web site. He cited me as an example of poor military forecasting, which I don't deny. The nightmare prospect of house-to-house fighting across Baghdad made me extremely anxious, two weeks ago.

Mercifully that did not happen. But then another nightmare did. A wave of looting and destruction has led to the collapse of medical care in 39 of 40 Baghdad hospitals, reduced public offices to shells, emptied shops, shattered Iraq's cultural heritage stored in the antiquities museum and the national archives -- and caused anarchy in the city's streets. The oil ministry was spared, for U.S. Marines were protecting it.

What precision bombing spared, precision looting has destroyed.

The events of the last several days reveal George W. Bush's priorities with great clarity. Iraq is "two oil fields and a city," as one military planner said to me. We occupied the oil fields and preserved them. We decapitated the city with bombs, targeting palaces and bunkers but leaving the civil infrastructure mostly alone. But we failed to protect that infrastructure once the bombing stopped. As a result, much of Baghdad is currently without electricity, water or police.

In Budapest, Hungary, outside the national museum, there is a statue of an officer of the U.S. Army. In 1918 that gentleman went to stop a mob from looting the treasures of Austria-Hungary, and he did so, alone, with a raised swagger stick. In Baghdad, where the antiquities museum's collection contained artifacts dating back 40,000 years, five soldiers could have done the same. The failure to send them cannot be excused.

Call it deregulation and privatization, taken to the logical extreme.

More broadly, it is now clear that those who favored a slower war with more forces were actually right. More troops weren't needed to beat the Iraqi army. But they were needed to prevent the disaster that has followed, and that is unfolding now. Even though things will eventually calm down, the damage has already been done.

Will life now be better for Iraqis? Politically, let's hope so.

But on the economic front, life could easily get much worse. The small sums Bush has so far sought for reconstruction will now go to the oil fields. We will be told that getting them up and running is necessary to fund further reconstruction. But what is there to reconstruct? Not the military, not the palaces -- those targets of precision bombing aren't needed. The museum? It is beyond repair. The hospitals can't be rebuilt until the cities are safe, and when will that be? Don't be surprised to find that the oil monies of the new Iraq go floating off, like Russia's, to the Cayman Islands. The scene is set for the rise of a mafia state.

This is regime change. And we had better brace ourselves for more of it, as two more cities, Damascus, Syria, and Teheran, Iran, lie in the path of the Richard Perle-Paul Wolfowitz-Dick Cheney juggernaut.

Perle would now transfer certain arguments used to justify war on Iraq to Syria. Weapons of mass destruction were never found? Then they must have been moved. Never mind, it's just a left turn and one desert away.

Preemption, self-defense, the nuclear threat, the war on terrorism: We now know that none of those arguments for war in Iraq was valid. There is just one argument that can still be defended, and that rested on the extreme cruelty of the Iraqi regime. There were many, not persuaded by all the other arguments, who supported taking down Saddam Hussein on such grounds.

It is perhaps a good thing that Americans will rally around a fight for freedom -- an appeal to generosity and to the higher national ideals -- and nothing else. For in Syria and Iran, those grounds do not apply. Neither is exactly a garden spot. But is Syria's presence in Lebanon more cruel than -- let's face it -- Israel's in the West Bank? Is Iran a theocracy worse than Saudi Arabia? Try to make either argument with a straight face.

Let all who supported war for Iraqi freedom now unite, in the strongest possible terms, against another war.

James K. Galbraith is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

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