WASHINGTON — How did we get into our present predicament in the Middle East and how do we get out of it?
We got in by overcommitting ourselves. We get out by shedding some commitments and by being careful about taking on new ones. The question is, which ones?
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the Bush administration properly struck Afghanistan, the protector and supporter of the Al Qaeda terrorist network and its leader, Osama bin Laden. We overthrew a truly terrible government and did some damage to Al Qaeda - but we didn't find bin Laden.
This is where the mistakes began. The Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq before its job was finished in Afghanistan. What had been a specific search for Al Qaeda and bin Laden became a general war on terror. This commitment was further extended when President Bush also proclaimed a mission to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world. The case against Iraq was not so much terror in general as it was Iraq's presumed capability to commit terrorist acts with the weapons of mass destruction that it was erroneously thought to have stockpiled in alarming quantities. More than a year after the US invasion, none of these weapons has been found.
Another mistake was abandonment of the United Nations. The Security Council supported the US in Afghanistan but refused to do so in Iraq. Mr. Bush thereupon announced his resolve to go it alone. What had been an international effort in Afghanistan became a unilateral American initiative in Iraq. The US still had the staunch support of Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair risked his government to stay with the US, but Bush alienated other key allies such as France and Germany. Even Mexico and Chile rebuffed pleas to go along. The president also made it clear that he wasn't open to advice from the UN and that henceforth the war in Iraq would be run by the US as the US wanted to run it. This piece of arrogance caused more ill will.
A third mistake was misjudging Iraqi opinion. The Bush administration correctly thought that overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would be easy, but it was wrong in what it thought would come next. As the US expected, most (not all) Iraqis were glad to be rid of Hussein. As the US did not expect, most (not all) Iraqis wanted the American soldiers to pack up and go home once this was accomplished.
Hussein's overthrow trapped the US in what appears likely to be a long stay. A good deal of the country's infrastructure was destroyed. There was no power-generating capacity and therefore, in the heat of a brutal summer, no air conditioning. Water supply was uncertain; gasoline was scarce. Sewers didn't work. The country's government had evaporated. Lack of a police force touched off widespread looting that American troops did nothing to stop.
The US appointed a handpicked governing council, but Iraqis would have none of it without elections. Under pressure from Iraqi religious leaders and the UN (now that he's in trouble, Bush is listening to the UN, at least a little), the US agreed to relinquish sovereignty on June 30. To whom, is the question. In a plan for which the UN deserves a great deal of credit, the governing council then goes out of existence. An interim government is supposed to be formed in time to succeed the council. A national assembly is to be elected in January. Meanwhile, Iraqi resistance is greater and casualties on both sides are higher than when the US was fighting Hussein.
Other commitments loom - Iran, Israel/Palestine, North Korea. The US needs to back off and reconsider. It cannot very well abandon Afghanistan and Iraq after what it's done to their countries. The US needs to keep looking for bin Laden and harassing Al Qaeda. But the US ought not to invade another country without allies and without better evidence than it had in Iraq.
A restraining factor is how thinly American troops are already spread. There are approximately 130,000 in Iraq. After World War I the fabled Lawrence of Arabia advised the British government that it would need 750,000 troops to stabilize an area that included parts of what is now Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
A legacy of the Reagan administration is the National Endowment for Democracy - including two subgroups, one Republican and one Democratic. They were created specifically to carry on modest and affordable efforts to strengthen democracy. Let them do it, with good wishes from the rest of us.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.