Right Hook

Bill Kristol applauds President Bush for "dropping the pretense" that everything's under control; Andrew Sullivan says that more terrorist violence in Iraq might not be a bad thing. Plus: Cato's Stephen Moore says Howard Dean is tougher than the GOP thinks.

By Mark Follman

Published September 10, 2003 8:46PM (EDT)

Like much of the rest of the world, the right is preoccupied by Iraq this week, and there's increasing debate about whether the Bush administration is meeting the challenges there. In the Sept. 15 issue of the Weekly Standard, editors William Kristol and Robert Kagan applaud the administration for losing some of its illusions about rebuilding Iraq. Kristol and Kagan maintain that peace in Iraq can't be won on the cheap, but in fact requires U.S. military escalation:

"At least the administration has begun dropping the pretense that everything is under control in Iraq and that the civilian authority has the resources and the field commanders the troops that they need. Last week the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, admitted that his forces could not handle any new eruption of conflict in Iraq should one occur. 'If a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt,' Gen. Sanchez told reporters in Baghdad,' ... that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for.' So when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the United States has enough forces on the ground in Iraq, what he means is that we have enough so long as nothing untoward happens ...

"We trust that ... the White House will make the hard decision to put in the U.S. troops necessary to do the job.

"Democrats call for internationalization in Iraq not simply because they like multilateralism but because, as both Howard Dean and John Kerry have said, it will allow us to 'bring our boys home.' In this formulation, the call for the U.N. to take the lead role in Iraq is really a kind of veiled McGovernism. The administration's push to stand up an Iraqi force ahead of schedule is a thinly veiled attempt to make up for the lack of American forces and the unwillingness to introduce more ... to shoulder the necessary military burden."

But according to widely read blogger Steven Den Beste, who writes frequently on "USS Clueless" about foreign policy and the military, the U.S. may not have at its easy disposal the military resources needed for Iraq -- nor for future conflicts:

"The Army is stretched to the limit [in Iraq]. The problem is coming up with relief for units which have been there for a long time and need to come home, and in the next few months we're going to have to come up with about three divisions worth.

"We could do that easily if we were willing to kiss off Korea entirely, and decide that any war there wasn't our problem ...

"But in the longer term, there's an even greater danger. We have the world's best military, right now. Will we still have in five years? The kind of force we have, which can operate at the level of effectiveness it does using the kind of tactics it uses, is only possible with volunteers who are capable and highly trained. That kind of military can't be created out of draftees, and it relies heavily on a substantial core of careerists ... when their term of enlistment runs out, how many of them will re-up? If too many decide they've had enough, and don't reenlist, we could face severe degradation. Too much experience and training will walk into the civilian economy, never to return, and it won't be easy to replace."

Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, notes that President Bush's updated case for war in Iraq, per his Sept. 7 address to the nation, includes a "prestige" factor. Lowry suggests that the rising body count might be the necessary cost of proving America's conviction.

"Bush rightly argued that terrorists were emboldened in the 1990s by the belief that the U.S. could be made to cut and run upon experiencing any casualties. Bush mentioned Somalia and Beirut in this connection. We wish it would have turned out otherwise in Iraq, but the low-intensity insurrection now provides a test of U.S. staying power. If the U.S. can see this through, it may have vanquished its image as a paper tiger once and for all. That, over the long run, may serve to convince terrorists that killing Americans is not as useful as they thought, that it doesn't bring an inevitable American retreat."

In the latest Sunday Times of London, columnist Andrew Sullivan suggests Bush's penchant for wartime swagger might be part of a greater "flytrap" strategy aimed at drawing the global terror network into one central showdown:

"What else did president Bush mean when he challenged the terror-masters to 'bring 'em on,' in Iraq? Those are not the words of a man seeking merely to pacify a country, but to continue waging war against terrorism ...

"Last week, Paul Wolfowitz chimed in with a piece in the Wall Street Journal, specifically citing the occupation of Iraq as a central part of the war against terror. 'Even before the bombing of the U.N. headquarters, if you'd asked Gen. Mattis and his Marines,' Wolfowitz wrote, 'there was no question in their minds that the battle they wage -- the battle to secure the peace in Iraq -- is now the central battle in the war on terrorism ...'

"The reason the Bush administration went to the U.N. last week to seek more troops from foreign countries for peace-keeping and security purposes was ... not merely an admission that they had goofed in estimating the number of troops required to pacify the country. It was a move designed to liberate the U.S. military machine from peace-keeping in order to concentrate on war-making -- against the terror network they had come to destroy. Listen to U.S. Army Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, [recently] on CNN: 'This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity ... But this is exactly where we want to fight them. ... This will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States.'

"Will this strategy work? Its obvious disadvantage is that it's tough to fight an escalating terrorist war in the same country you're trying simultaneously to nudge toward civil order and democracy ...

"At some point, I'd argue, the president ... has to make this strategy more formal. He has to tell the American people that more violence in Iraq may not in some circumstances be a bad thing. It may be a sign that we are flushing out terror and confronting it, rather than passively waiting for it to attack again. He has to remind people that this war is far from over, that the mission is still very much unaccomplished, and that this is not Vietnam. Right now he looks defensive, reactive and not in full control. That must end ..."

Despite all the focus on Bush and Iraq, there's still plenty of interest in debating President Clinton's alleged failures on the terror front. According to James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal, the Clinton administration could've prevented 9/11 had it focused more intently on American security. Citing a recent article in Foreign Affairs by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Taranto criticizes Albright for treating national-security affairs like a global "popularity contest," and disputes her claim that liberating Iraq has hurt the war on terror.

"[Albright has cited] no actual evidence that disagreements over Iraq have undermined cooperation over al-Qaida. It's worth noting, though, that when Albright was in a position to do something about al-Qaida, she demurred -- for precisely the same reason that she now thinks freeing Iraq from Saddam Hussein's rule was a mistake.

"The concluding chapter of Richard Miniter's new book, "Losing bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror" recounts a meeting of President Clinton's national-security team in the wake of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole ... at which Richard Clarke, Clinton's 'terrorism czar,' advocated a strike against Bin Laden but everyone else present opposed it.

"Albright says she was against such a strike because there was not yet 'definitive' proof that al-Qaida was behind the bombings. 'To strike without evidence or any expectation of hitting Bin Laden would have turned world opinion against the United States at the very moment we were seeking maximum cooperation in tracking down the terrorist network ...' she wrote in an email to Miniter. It is possible that the Sept. 11 attacks would have been averted had Albright and her colleagues been more concerned about American security and less about 'world opinion.'"

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On the 2004 election battlefront, Stephen Moore of the libertarian Cato Institute takes a moment to admire "The Appeal of Howard Dean" in the Sept. 15 issue of the Weekly Standard. Though he questions Dean's purported fiscal conservatism -- in terms that George W. Bush himself might appreciate:

"Dean has boasted that he was 'the most fiscally conservative governor in Vermont in decades,' but that's like saying you were the most chaste woman in a Texas whorehouse.

"This is, after all, the former governor of the state that gave us Ben & Jerry's Rainforest Crunch and the nation's only self-proclaimed socialist congressman, Bernie Sanders. In Vermont, Euro-style tax-and-spend governmental activism is still in vogue and politicians like Senator Jim Jeffords pass as moderates ... At one time or another, Dean raised just about every tax he could get his hands on."

Still, Moore warns Republicans not to underestimate Dean's charisma:

"Republicans are said to be salivating over the prospect of a Bush-Dean match-up. They shouldn't get carried away ...

"Part of Dean's star appeal has been the refreshing genuineness of his campaign rhetoric, even when his ideas are cockeyed ...

"Ever since [I first met] Howard Dean some five years ago, I've been trying to think of what politician he most resembles. The former governor of a small state, he is charismatic, good looking, wonkish, craving of the spotlight, and capable of telling a room full of people precisely what they want to hear. The obvious answer recently hit me: Dean is Bill Clinton, but without the skirt-chasing."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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