Slate's 10th Anniversary

The Glass Is Three-Quarters Empty

Fareed Zakaria makes the most eloquent and persuasive case for war. If we all get together again in five years and his scenario has come to pass, I will arrive at the reunion with mea culpa in hand. I turned against the war last March not out of pacifism, faith in the United Nations, or solidarity with France, but rather out of sheer skepticism—not only about the Bush administration’s dubious motives and mendacious ploys but also (and primarily) about its ability to pull the thing off, particularly in the “postwar” phase (which our officials, in fact, so thoroughly botched that it has devolved into a second, deadlier phase of the war itself). In their diplomacy leading up to the war, Bush & Co. proved themselves so maladroit at dealing with long-familiar allies and entities, I figured they’d be hopeless at untangling the internal ethnic tensions that would boil to the surface after Saddam’s lid was blown off.

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Fareed lays out an enticing plotline in which the emergence of a stable state and a civil society in Iraq inspires progress and moderation throughout the Middle East. He points to steps that have already been taken in this direction by Libya and Syria—and I agree that these steps are, in large measure, a direct result of the war. However, I would argue that we are still at a very early stage of this story. Iraq could evolve into a viable, Western-leaning nation; it could devolve into a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism, à la Khomeini or worse; it could deteriorate into fragmented anarchy, even civil war. I don’t see any one of these possibilities as more or less likely than the others. If one of the latter two scenarios comes to pass, the impact on Iraq, the region, and the rest of the world—and the United States’ standing in it—will be devastating, the exact opposite of the noblest intentions.

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I’m not dogmatic about this point. Fareed, you may be proved right. I hope you are. I guess the difference between us, for now, is that you see the glass as one-quarter full; I see it as three-quarters empty.

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The Bush officials have changed their tune somewhat in the past few months. They seem now to realize, to some degree, the need for a more multilateral approach. Baker’s trip to Europe (which I think was about more than debt-forgiveness) is an intriguing sign in this regard. What they are doing, diplomatically, in the Middle East is less clear. The Libyan gambit is promising, but it would be nice to see some pressure on other powers, not least Israel, too.

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The Bush people also appear more responsive to the desires and demands of Iraqi leaders. (You don’t hear Wolfowitz waxing on de Tocqueville much anymore; when it comes to what we all see as an acceptable political outcome, the bar has been considerably lowered, to accommodate a shift from fantasy to realism.) And the military leadership—thanks, mainly, to the new Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who rose through the ranks as a special ops commander and therefore knows the nature of “low-intensity conflict”—is adapting as well, attempting to strike a more effective balance between banging down doors and capturing hearts-and-minds.

Maybe it will work out. Maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t, the war will have unleashed forces far more damaging than might have been brought on by a continuation of containment, smart sanctions, and other, subtler pressures. Certainly I agree with you (and Tom Friedman, who has been making this point repeatedly in the Times as well as here) that the next few months are decisive and that the administration has got to start playing this game much more shrewdly than it has until now.

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