The famous photograph at the right was taken on December 20, 1983. As recounted by Michael Rubin of The American Enterprise Institute, in today's WSJ.com OpinionJournal, it shows Donald Rumsfeld, then the Reagan Administration's Middle East envoy, meeting with Saddam Hussein in Bagdad. Concerned about countering growing Iranian influence in the region, under the aegis of the Ayatollah Khomeini regime, President Reagan sought to restore long-severed diplomatic relations with Hussein's Iraq. Although the United States intelligence was already aware that Hussein had used chemical weapons, Rumsfeld did not broach the subject with Hussein, in a triumph of the outlook commonly known as foreign policy realism. Rubin relates the long-term result of this policy:
"Iran and Iraq would fight for five more years, leaving hundreds of thousands dead on the battlefield. Then, two years after a ceasefire ended the war, Saddam invaded Kuwait. In subsequent years, he would subsidize waves of Palestinian suicide-bombers, effectively ending the Oslo peace process. Saddam's career is a model of realist blowback."
Fast forward to November 2006. By invading Iraq, President George W. Bush, with Donald Rumsfeld as his Secretary of Defense, had implemented a neoconservative policy of regime change in Iraq that was anathema to the foreign policy realists and many traditional conservatives (e.g., George Will). Now, following the GOP losses in the midterm Congressional elections, Rumsfeld has resigned. His resignation is cheered not only by the foreign policy realists on the right, but by the so-called progressives on the left, who welcome the re-ascendency of the archetypal foreign policy realist,James Baker. Rumors abound that the report of the Baker-Hamilton Commission will advocate a realpolitik accommodation with Iran and Syria in order to allow the U.S. to extract itself from Iraq. The very progressives who pilloried Rumsfeld, when he was in the realist camp in the 1980's, for turning a blind eye to Hussein's chemical weapon program now are urging the same policy toward Iran, which is rushing toward the development of nuclear weapons, and Syria, whose agents were captured in September 2004 by Jordanian security trying to smuggle 20 tons of chemical weapons into Jordan for attacks on Amman.
According to Rubin, this is a glaring inconsistency fueled by, among other factors, a personal hatred of Don Rumsfeld by the left: "Today, progressivism places personal vendetta above principle. Mr. Rumsfeld is bad, Mr. Baker is good, and consistency irrelevant." Rumsfeld could be excused for thinking, "I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't."
I disagree with Rubin in one significant respect. The failure of Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration in Iraq has not been the decision to invade Iraq and overturn the Hussein regime. Their tragic shortcoming was the failure to properly appreciate the difficulty of midwifing a democratic regime in a totalitarian society. The Bush Administration should have devoted far more pre-war planning for the post-invasion period, listened to cautionary reports from the State Department, and committed many thousands more troops for police and security duty during the occupation. They should have prepared the American public in advance of the war for the necessity of a lengthy occupation, a significant troop commitment, and the likelihood of a low-intensity insurgency. In light of the wars and genocides that have plagued Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo since the collapse of Tito's Yugoslavia, and the skepticism regarding the difficulty of nation building expressed by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condi Rice during the 2000 Presidential campaign, their lack of foresight on this point is truly disappointing.
The intervening event of the 9/11 attacks offers no excuse--9/11 may have demonstrated the necessity of removal of rogue regimes that might pursue WMD; it did not justify poor planning and implementation of regime change.
This is not mere 20-20 hindsight. The hope for setting our Iraq policy aright and still salvaging a positive result from the invasion of Iraq lies in now doing what is necessary to restore security and stop the mounting civil strife. That may well require more troops, not less, and certainly not the staged withdrawal advocated by many Democrats. (See "Democratic lawmakers will seek a phased withdrawal from Iraq"
in today's LA Times.)
In summary, I believe that the criticism of the handling of the post-invasion period by Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration is well-justified, completely apart from the obvious animus displayed toward them by the Left and MSM. However, that does not negate the warning posed by Mr. Rubin of the dangers of a realpolitik embrace of Iran and Syria.