Behind the changing rationales for war

Even as questions stir around the prewar case for ousting Hussein, current challenges in Iraq could test the US public's support for Bush.

Why did the United States invade Iraq? And why are 146,000 American troops still there?

These are simple - maybe simplistic - questions. Yet intentional or not, the official (and publicly perceived) rationale for that invasion and that continued presence has been shifting in ways that may cloud the past and make murky the future of Iraq.

With the White House under fire for hyping (but not finding) weapons of mass destruction or any Al Qaeda terrorist link to Saddam Hussein, the war seems to have come down primarily to one of humanitarian liberation - "regime change" to free Iraqis from despotism. Mass grave sites, stories of long imprisonments, and Uday Hussein's torture of Olympic athletes reinforce this motivation.

But for many experts and ordinary Americans, this raises doubts about a preemptive strike against a foreign power half-way around the world that may not have been a direct threat to the United States. Compounding this concern is the fact that the effort to rebuild Iraq is proving costly for US forces: Nearly as many American lives have been lost since the fall of Baghdad as before the statues of the Iraqi dictator fell.

Public debate continues to focus on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons - those weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that seemed to be the main reason for going to war.

As weeks wear on with no smoking gun, administration rhetoric has changed.

Before the war, the president and top administration officials left the impression that Iraq had a large WMD arsenal poised and ready with field commanders authorized to launch such weapons within minutes.

"Our conservative estimate is that Iraq has stockpiles of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent ... enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in his prewar speech at the United Nations.

The 'had' vs. 'has' question

This week, President Bush spoke more generally of a "weapons program" that Iraq "had" or "did have" in the past. "I am absolutely convinced with time we'll find out that they did have a weapons program," Mr. Bush told reporters Monday.

After some controversy about those remarks, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush was not backing down on the view that Hussein had actual WMD.

Others support this view.

"Most of the evidence still points to the conclusion Saddam had weapons of mass destruction," says Loren Thompson, head of security studies at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "Indeed, his representatives documented the Iraqi arsenal of germ and chemical weapons in successive declarations during the 1990s. What the Iraqis were not able to document in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom was that they had actually destroyed the weapons."

Politically, whether Iraq "has" or "had" such weapons may not prove crucial to US public opinion.

"Whether or not they find weapons of mass destruction doesn't matter, because the rationale for the war changed," Republican pollster Frank Luntz told the Associated Press. "Americans like a good picture. And one photograph of an Iraqi child kissing a US soldier is more powerful than two months of debate [about WMD] on the floor of Congress."

For many Americans, the rationale for ousting Hussein never rested solely on WMD. Since his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, many viewed him as a dangerous and destabilizing force in the Middle East.

Deaths in Iraq

However, the failure to find WMD comes at a difficult time, with other challenges surfacing in Iraq. Many of the occupying US troops remain on high alert as well-organized attackers kill another American every day or so. And freedom for many Iraqis so far means no paycheck, not enough food or fuel, and continued lawlessness.

"Now, with no WMD to be found, very little of the liberated mood left, and a far grimmer mood of anti-Americanism taking hold than we yet understand, none of the promised rationales seem still to hold water," says retired Navy captain and Pentagon strategist Larry Seaquist.

This raises concerns about the US-led effort needed to fight the global war on terrorism, particularly among those already-skeptical allies who may now be less inclined to cooperate.

"That actually can hurt us in very real and tangible ways that Iraq could not have," says Charles Peña, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Meanwhile, this week's violence in the Middle East signals that another US rationale for war with Iraq - greater stability and eventually more democracy across the region - remains a far from certain proposition.

Whatever the espoused (or actual) rationale for war, international opinions of the US are considerably lower than they were a year ago, the Pew Research Center reported last week. Furthermore, Pew reports: "The war has widened the rift between Americans and Western Europeans, further inflamed the Muslim world, softened support for the war on terrorism, and significantly weakened global public support for the pillars of the post-World War II era - the UN and the North Atlantic alliance."

US opinion still supports war

In this country, public opinion is much more supportive of US military action in Iraq.

The Gallup polling organization reports this week that despite the failure to find the weapons, 56 percent of Americans continue to take the position that the war was justified.

"Overall, 70 percent say things are going either 'very' or 'moderately' well for the United States in Iraq," Gallup finds. Still, about a quarter of Americans are waiting to decide whether or not the war was justified, pending the outcome of the search for WMD. And 62 percent believe the initial information given out about WMD was inaccurate.

Indeed, the relatively sanguine current views could shift. "If history is any indication, Americans don't start caring about why we went to war unless things start going badly," says Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., referring to World War I, Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. "The recent revelations, which call into question the WMD threat and the Al Qaeda connection, expose some of the reasons for the war as being questionable," says Dr. Eland. Continuing US casualties and instability in Iraq may yet "undermine even the fallback reason - removing a brutal dictator."

All of this leads some to conclude that the US needs to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible. The argument here is that the longer the US stays there - trying to fashion some kind of representative democracy in a country with no such tradition - moderate political elements will grow weaker while extremists gain.

To stay or not to stay

"This is the classic Catch-22 of nation-building efforts," Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, writes in a new report. "The harder an occupying government tries to build a nation, the higher the likelihood that the citizens of the nation being 'built' will grow to resent the efforts of well-meaning foreigners."

Other experts warn against leaving Iraq, even if things are going badly. "We have to stay," says military analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "This country is too important to the region and to our interests and to the greater campaign against weapons of mass destruction and global terror."

In any case, says Dr. O'Hanlon, "We're going to be in it for the long haul, and this is going to make the Bosnia and Kosovo mission look awfully small and easy by comparison."

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