Opinion » Viewpoint

Tunnel Vision

Is the American war effort really "on schedule"?



In about a week, the Bush administration has done in Iraq what the Johnson administration took more than a year to do in Vietnam: opened a credibility gap. This one is about "the plan," which the Bush administration describes as both "brilliant" and on schedule. As anyone can see -- and as some field commanders keep saying -- it is neither.

By rank, I rose no higher than Pfc. in the Army, so my inclination is simply to (smartly) salute my superiors and accept what they say. Nevertheless, I wonder about a timetable that increasingly threatens one of the stated goals of this war -- to bring the manifest blessings of democracy to the entire Arab world. By the time we get around to doing that, the regimes we want reformed may well be history and replaced by ones that are at our throat.

Last winter in Europe I met with an important Arab leader who, like George Bush, wanted Saddam Hussein gone, but he wanted him gone quickly. Anything else -- a war that dragged on -- could cause lots of trouble. Television pictures of dead Iraqi civilians, the destruction of Baghdad, the natural desire to root for the underdog, and the already virulent hatred of the United States might prompt the storied "Arab street" to rise and threaten moderate regimes throughout the region.

I know, we've heard that before. But "before" was before the United States was so universally reviled as the protector of not only Israel but also the regimes hated by Islamic militants -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states. Even Turkey has turned out to be a dicey proposition. Public sentiment ran so strongly against the United States that Ankara decided to mostly sit out this war. It has cost us dearly.

Right now, assurances that pro-American regimes in the Muslim world will weather the current trouble sound uncomfortably similar to assurances that Hussein's regime would instantaneously collapse and "Welcome, Yanks" banners would flap from every window in Iraq. The longer the war goes on -- the more Fridays anti-American mullahs sermonize at their mosques -- the greater the danger to pro-American regimes. The fact remains that moderate Arab and Islamic leaders are now scared. They fear their own people.

So if, as Don Rumsfeld and others say, the U.S. effort remains on schedule, then the question is why was this the schedule in the first place? In other words, wouldn't it have been better to keep the diplomatic effort going -- the additional month asked for by the six swing votes on the Security Council -- so when war came, it came swiftly? An additional month would have meant that all U.S. forces would have been in the region, ready to go. As it is, the 4th Infantry Division still is not in place.

The answer is that the Bush administration really believed that the war would be brief -- that "shock and awe" would work, that southern Iraq would rebel, and that some clear-thinking person close to Saddam would "exile" him with a bullet.

None of that has happened ... yet. Maybe that's because Iraqis are afraid of the goons in their midst, maybe they are waiting to see the outcome of the war, or maybe -- just maybe -- they hate the United States as much as they do Saddam but fear him more. Even after the U.S.-led coalition wins -- and it will surely win -- what has happened so far suggests that keeping the peace is going to be more difficult than expected. It just could be that administering Iraq after the war is going to be as expensive and dirty as some recently rebuked Pentagon planners have suggested.

Lyndon Johnson's credibility gap turned out to be a mortal wound. He became such a polarizing figure that he limited himself to one elected presidential term. It is too soon to say that Bush is Johnson redux. Certainly the war in Iraq is nothing like the war in Vietnam. But what the two wars are beginning to have in common is a bristling arrogance coupled with an insistence that everything is going according to plan.

There's almost certainly light at the end of this tunnel -- but the tunnel is clearly longer than expected.

Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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