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U.S. security plan rests on hope

By Peter Galbraith

America does not have the troops to deal with North Korea and Iran.

THE IRAQ Survey Group has finally reached its conclusions on the search for weapons of mass destruction: Iraq did not have any, having destroyed its stockpiles years before the 2003 war. During the 18-month search by more than 1,000 ISG members, North Korea reprocessed plutonium which was previously safeguarded — apparently making half a dozen nuclear weapons. Iran built gaseous centrifuges and is, reportedly, now enriching uranium.

Not surprisingly, Tony Blair and Australia's John Howard say the Iraq war was still worthwhile. (They could hardly say otherwise.) The U.S. Vice-President, Dick Cheney, explained that, in spite of there being no WMD (weapons of mass destruction), the ISG report actually justified the invasion. It showed, he said, that "delay, defer, wait wasn't an option."

It is easy to dismiss Mr. Cheney's comments as the bravado of a candidate whose ticket is sinking over the mismanagement of Iraq. He seized on a portion of the report asserting that Saddam Hussein intended to reconstitute his WMD programme once sanctions were lifted. In effect, Mr. Cheney is arguing that the U.S. was right to attack a country that posed no threat but whose leader had evil intent and one day might try to become a threat.

In a June 2002 speech to the U.S. army academy at West Point, President George W. Bush told the graduating cadets: "If we wait for threats to fully materialise, we will have waited too long." This speech articulated what became known as the pre-emption doctrine. Nine months later, the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq to disarm Saddam's WMD.

The question is whether the Bush doctrine makes for sound national security strategy. Devising this strategy entails assessing threats and looking for opportunities. Since no country can do everything, the most important task of a strategist is to set priorities, taking into account available resources, costs and risks. In his West Point speech, Bush rightly identified the most serious danger as coming "at the crossroads of radicalism and technology."

But Mr. Bush never prioritised. North Korea with nuclear weapons and Iran acquiring nuclear technology posed far greater threats in 2003 than an Iraq with some hidden chemical and biological weapons.

By not setting priorities, the Bush administration lost control of the costs and the risks of its strategy. The Pentagon neo-conservatives planning postwar Iraq had grand ideas for a long occupation (modelled on postwar Germany and Japan), but only sent a minimal number of troops (for domestic political reasons). Because of limited resources, they simply assumed a benign environment, eliminating from their planning the possibilities of resistance and lawlessness.

Similarly, the administration hoped that Saddam Hussein's removal would intimidate Iran and North Korea, as well as encourage pro-democracy elements in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. They apparently never contemplated what might happen if the U.S. got bogged down in Iraq. With nine out of 10 active duty army divisions in Iraq and Afghanistan — or preparing to go — North Korea and Iran understand that there is no spare U.S. capacity to deal with them. And in the Middle East, it is surely the hardliners and the Islamists — and not the democrats — who feel emboldened by developments in Iraq.

The Bush doctrine can be criticised on many grounds. Under international law, pre-emption is permitted (if ever) only in the case of imminent attack and not to deal with a hypothetical future threat. Mr. Bush's nation building has been ambitious, arrogant and incompetent. But the greatest flaw of the Bush doctrine is that it is poor strategy.

By not distinguishing between serious immediate threats and distant potential ones, Mr. Bush ducked the hard choice at the core of all sound national security strategy - how to ration scarce military and diplomatic assets.

As a result, the U.S. invaded Iraq to eliminate a threat posed by non-existent weapons. As for North Korea and Iran, the U.S. is reduced to hoping that others — China in the case of Pyongyang and the Europeans in the case of Teheran — can solve the problem. Hope is not a strategy. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

(Peter W Galbraith, a former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, is senior diplomatic fellow at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.)

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