WASHINGTON — We went to war in Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction. But it turned out there were no such weapons. In his speech at the Army War College last week, President Bush ignored the weapons issue, as well as his oft-expressed desire to depose Saddam Hussein.
In the current version, we went to war to defend our security. Without the weapons of mass destruction, where was the threat to our security? Have we created a new threat in the effort to stamp out a nonexistent one?
What is wrong with this war is that it violates the principles that the Pentagon drew up for foreign interventions after the Vietnam War.
The most important of these principles was the requirement for clarity - of objectives and of an exit strategy, as well as of planning, cost, and allies. All of these were in the context of upholding American values. Once we start compromising on these values, on our standards of personal and national conduct, we start becoming more like the enemy and less like our former selves.
Shakespeare put it well in "Hamlet," where Polonius advises his son:
"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
The Iraqi prison scandal is the latest evidence that we're not being true to ourselves. One of the dangers of this behavior is that we take on the characteristics of our enemies.
"We look like Saddam," an anonymous "senior US official" in Baghdad recently told The Washington Post.
Even less are we being true to ourselves in the broader war on terror. This does not mean we should abandon it - only that we should narrow our objectives. In the same speech - indeed, in the same paragraph - in which the president said he sent troops to Iraq to defend our security, the president also said he sent them there to make "its people free." American security and Iraqi freedom are unrelated. Iraqi freedom is probably unattainable as a part of US policy.
The administration would have us believe that the roots of the prison scandal are in a few low-ranking, inadequately trained, and supervised personnel. This doesn't deal with who was responsible for such training and supervision - nor do we yet know how high that responsibility goes.
What we do know is that in the White House there is a dismissive attitude toward the Geneva Conventions regulating treatment of prisoners. In a memo for the president, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote off some of these provisions as "quaint." That is part of the abandonment of American values in the name of realism. Abandoned simultaneously are protections for Americans who may be prisoners.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, the US became, unchallenged, most powerful nation on Earth. We have continued to add to that power, more for its own sake than because we had an enemy to conquer or to defend ourselves against. We can destroy anything, but we have not learned how to use our power for constructive ends.
What we are learning in Iraq is that freedom and democracy cannot be imposed by force. They have to come naturally.
This can be facilitated by what Joseph Nye the Harvard scholar and former assistant secretary of defense, calls "soft power," that is to say influence. The US used to have a great deal of influence in the world. It was acquired over a long period of time by upholding the things we believe in.
Bush sneers that reliance on the UN means we wouldn't act if other countries objected. Nonsense. It means that if other countries object, we will negotiate. It means we would rather have others with us than against us.
By tarnishing the world reputation of the US, the war on terror has seriously reduced American influence. It will take a long time to bring it back. One way to do so would be to follow the prescription of John Quincy Adams who was secretary of State (1817-1825) and president (1825-1829):
"Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America's heart.... But she does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.