Why are we going to war?
You would think the answer would be clear as the troops get ready for battle. But it's not. That should be deeply disturbing to all who worry about the outcome of an Iraq war.
For many Americans, the reason for war is an Iraq-al-Qaida link. Fifty percent of those surveyed in a January Knight Ridder poll think that one or more of the Sept. 11 hijackers was Iraqi. Not so. Seventy-two percent of a February CNN/Time poll think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. No evidence of this.
Many in the Middle East think we are out to seize Iraq's oil. Europeans think George W. Bush is trigger-happy. Senior officials within the administration are themselves conflicted over the goals of Iraq policy.
No wonder there is so much global speculation about the "real" reason for this war.
The White House has used Iraq as a wedge for new doctrines that would have America wage wars against evildoers and reform the Middle East. Such grandiose schemes scare allies and undercut the legitimate case for confronting Saddam.
The administration also has magnified the Saddam threat beyond its real dimensions. The truth is bad enough, so why exaggerate the facts and undermine U.S. credibility? Saddam has aided a local Islamist group in Iraqi Kurdistan with al-Qaida links; his goal is to help those who fight his local enemies, the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The administration has presented no proof that Saddam would risk suicide by attacking the United States directly, nor does he have the means. Terrorists who seek fissile material, which he doesn't have, can buy it from North Korea. Biological agents can be made in labs or purchased from other rogue states.
Had President Bush focused on the real threat presented by Iraq, I believe he could have won U.N. backing for a stronger effort to curtail Saddam.
The pitch would have gone like this: Saddam is an international outlaw who must be permanently contained or ousted. Take your choice.
Permanent containment means not only that Saddam must surrender all weapons of mass destruction by a date certain. It also means that there must be intrusive inspections, backed by the threat of force, so long as he remains in power. And other countries must help provide troops.
Such a pitch would have challenged the Russians and French to show their true colors. They know inspectors can never find all of Saddam's weapons. They also know that once inspections end -- and economic sanctions are lifted -- Saddam can rebuild his weapons programs. And his WMD threaten the Middle East, which provides oil for the industrialized world.
Would the French and Russians have endorsed permanent containment? Perhaps, if the alternative were war. If not, the administration would have had clear justification for using force under past U.N. resolutions.
But the administration never went this route. It isn't interested in permanent containment. The ouster of Saddam, as the president has explained, is part of a broad administration strategy to intimidate (or topple) other rogue leaders and remake the entire Middle East in a democratic mold.
I think such a strategy will fail and drag the United States into a postwar quagmire. The occupation of Iraq will be messy and more likely to strengthen Islamists than produce Mideast democracies.
Once Americans divine the breadth and audacity of administration goals, I think they will recoil. "Whatever the administration may think, the American public is not going to support an unending crusade against the bad guys," says Johns Hopkins University political scientist Michael Mandelbaum. Or an endless occupation of Baghdad.
But those goals aren't yet clear to most Americans and are still disputed by some top U.S. officials. So we go off to war without knowing where we're headed. This is a bad prescription for winning the peace.