Tuesday, June 17, 2014

EDITORIAL >> The wars continue

“It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”

—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on how long the United States would fight in Iraq.

The men and women from Little Rock Air Force Base have performed heroically for more than a decade, flying hundreds of missions into Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve never tired of the fighting and they’ve never complained: They did as they were told and saved hundreds of lives by delivering thousands of tons of supplies over dangerous terrain. They dodged bullets and roadside bombs, but now, as those countries descend into chaos, they must wonder about the politicians who sent them into harm’s way with no realistic goals or even an exit strategy.

A neophyte George W. Bush took the focus off Afghanistan and shifted his attention on Iraq. They are failed states that have splintered into numerous fiefdoms, thanks in no small part to another neophyte president, Barack Obama, who thought we could withdraw from battle, having planted the seeds of democracy.

The military analyst Edward Luttwak last week called our Iraq adventure a “colossal blunder, but the motive was far from sinister, indeed it was far too noble: to liberate Iraq from cruel dictatorship (done) in the expectation (entirely illusory) that Iraqis once liberated would peacefully collaborate under Western guidance to build a soon-to-be-prosperous democracy.”

While Sunnis and Shiites kill each other as Iraq falls apart and Americans evacuate the U.S. Embassy, the Obama administration is reaching out to the Iranians in hopes of stopping the Sunni advance on Baghdad. The Iranians, who are mostly Shiites, despise the Sunni rebels and might join us in crushing them. But our strange alliance with the Iranians could invite more Sunni militants into the fighting, with peace as elusive as ever.

The news is not all bad from the Middle East: It was announced Tuesday that the U.S. has captured Ahmed abu Khattalah, one of the ringleaders who attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Fighting terrorists should remain our main priority.

We recall a perceptive essay by Brent Scowcroft, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, in the Wall Street Journal in August 2002 under the headline, “Don’t Attack Saddam.”

Scowcroft, a retired Air Force general, wrote, “The United States could certainly defeat the Iraqi military and destroy Saddam’s regime. But it would not be a cakewalk. On the contrary, it undoubtedly would be very expensive — with serious consequences for the U.S. and global economy — and could as well be bloody.”

The general continued, “If we are to achieve our strategic objectives in Iraq, a military campaign very likely would have to be followed by a large-scale, long-term military occupation.”

Scowcroft, a national security adviser to the older and younger Bush, as well as Presidents Nixon and Ford — was convinced that the fighting in Iraq would not end well for us. Although he didn’t spell it all out in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, he must have known the true cost of the war: Trillions of dollars to fight endless battles and the deaths of thousands of people — Americans and Iraqis — and the additional cost of treating wounded veterans back home.

Scowcroft supported the war in Afghanistan. He thought that should have been the main focus on the war against terror.

But even Scowcroft might not have guessed that the war in Iraq would draw terrorists from all over the Middle East, Africa and Asia with names like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and al-Sham, who are now executing thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. These groups are so barbaric — they cut off the arms and legs and heads of their opponents — that al-Qaeda has shunned them.

Scowcroft said a war in Iraq would distract us from fighting terrorists who want to attack the U.S. “If we are truly serious about the war on terrorism, it must remain our top priority,” Scowcroft wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

“But there is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the Sept. 11 attacks,” the retired general continued. “Indeed Saddam’s goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them.”

Unlike the armchair strategists at newspapers and on cable TV, Scowcroft has a first-rate military mind and is a political realist who knew we’d have to stay in Iraq for a long time to keep it from falling apart. He wasn’t the only one who thought that. A former aide to Gen. David Petraeus, when he was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said we’d have to stay for “many, many years to come.” Another Petraeus adviser said, “Perhaps 20 years.”