Ready for the Peace?

BOB HERBERT,  The New York Times, March 20, 2003


Now that U.S. strikes against Iraq have begun, we should get rid of one canard immediately, and that's the notion that criticism of the Bush administration and opposition to this invasion imply in some sense a lack of support or concern for the men and women who are under arms.

The names of too many of my friends are recorded on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial for me to tolerate that kind of nonsense. I hope that the war goes well, that our troops prevail quickly and that casualties everywhere are kept to a minimum.

But the fact that a war may be quick does not mean that it is wise. Against the wishes of most of the world, we have plunged not just into war, but toward a peace that is potentially more problematic than the war itself.

Are Americans ready to pay the cost in lives and dollars of a long-term military occupation of Iraq? To what end?

Will an occupation of Iraq increase or decrease our security here at home?

Do most Americans understand that even as we are launching one of the most devastating air assaults in the history of warfare, private companies are lining up to reap the riches of rebuilding the very structures we're in the process of destroying?

Companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and the Bechtel Group understand this conflict a heck of a lot better than most of the men and women who will fight and die in it, or the armchair patriots who'll be watching on CNN and cheering them on.

It's not unpatriotic to say that there are billions of dollars to be made in Iraq and that the gold rush is already under way. It's simply a matter of fact.

Back in January, an article in The Wall Street Journal noted: "With oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia's, Iraq would offer the oil industry enormous opportunity should a war topple Saddam Hussein. But the early spoils would probably go to companies needed to keep Iraq's already rundown oil operations running, especially if facilities were further damaged in a war. Oil-services firms such as Halliburton Co., where Vice President Dick Cheney formerly served as chief executive, and Schlumberger Ltd. are seen as favorites for what could be as much as $1.5 billion in contracts."

There is tremendous unease at the highest levels of the Pentagon about this war and its aftermath. The president and his civilian advisers are making a big deal about the anticipated rejoicing of the liberated populace once the war is over. But Iraq is an inherently unstable place, and while the forces assembled to chase Saddam from power are superbly trained for combat, the military is not well prepared for a long-term occupation in the most volatile region in the world.

What's driving this war is President Bush's Manichaean view of the world and messianic vision of himself, the dangerously grandiose perception of American power held by his saber-rattling advisers, and the irresistible lure of Iraq's enormous oil reserves.

Polls show that the public is terribly confused about what's going on, so much so that some 40 percent believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. That's really scary. Rather than correct this misconception, the administration has gone out of its way to reinforce it.

I think the men and women moving militarily against Saddam are among the few truly brave and even noble individuals left in our society. They have volunteered for the dangerous duty of defending the rest of us. But I also believe they are being put unnecessarily in harm's way.

As a result of the military buildup, there is hardly a more hobbled leader on earth at the moment than Saddam Hussein. A skillful marshaling of international pressure could have forced him from power. But then the Bush administration would not have had its war and its occupation. It would not have been able to turn Iraq into an American protectorate, which is as good a term as any for a colony.

Is it a good idea to liberate the people of Iraq from the clutches of a degenerate like Saddam Hussein? Sure. But there were better, less dangerous, ways to go about it.

In the epigraph to his memoir, "Present at the Creation," Dean Acheson quoted a 13th-century king of Spain, Alphonso X, the Learned:

"Had I been present at the creation I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe."