05/05/2006 05:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Failure in Iraq

The war with Iraq was always about more than Saddam Hussein. It was supposed to serve as the model for a new way to stop the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. It was supposed to be the beginning of a process of regime change in the Middle East and elsewhere that would replace uncooperative or hostile governments with pro-Western, democratic regimes. The strategy has proven a complete failure. Proliferation threats across the board are far worse now than they were five years ago.

The men and women who formed the core of President George W. Bush's national security team had developed their ideas in the neoconservative think tanks of Washington, including the Project for the New American Century, the American Enterprise Institute and the National Institute for Public Policy. They scorned the treaties and multilateral arrangements their Republican and Democratic predecessors had labored for 40 years to construct.

Though not without its failures and faults, this interlocking network of global restraints had blocked if not altogether prevented the spread of these dangerous weapons. Far more countries over the past 15 years, for example, have been persuaded to abandon nuclear weapon programs or weapons than have initiated such programs. There are half the number of nuclear weapons in the world today than there were 15 years ago and chemical and biological weapons have been largely eliminated as serious state threats. All this is due to the policies and treaties negotiated by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The new team would have none of it. They were scathing in their criticism. Then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton said in 2004, "The Bush administration is making up for decades of stillborn plans, wishful thinking, and irresponsible passivity. After many years of hand-wringing with the vague hope to find shelter from gathering threats, we are now acting decisively. We will no longer accept being dispirited by difficult problems that have no immediate answer."

Gary Schmitt, an analyst at the Project for the New American Century, said more directly, "Conservatives don't like arms control agreements for the simple reason that they rarely, if ever, increase U.S. security." He contended that it was no longer "plausible to argue that our overall security was best served by a web of parchment accords, and not our own military capabilities."

Iraq was the first implementation of the new action agenda these analysts trumpeted as "a fundamental change from past." The core strategy was to use the American military to wage preventive wars backed by ad hoc coalitions, anti-missile systems and counter-proliferation weapons to eliminate threats they believed obvious. In the heady days of Spring 2003, when the war seemed to be going well, John Bolton was asked what lesson Iran and North Korea should draw from the invasion. "Take a number," he quipped. Indeed, the talk in Washington then was of moving on to Syria and Iran. "Men go to Baghdad," the saying was, "real men go to Tehran."

But the war did not go well for long. Though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice now seems to have replaced Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as chief cheerleader for the war, many now see the invasion of Iraq as an historic disaster on par with Napoleon's invasion of Moscow in 1812 and the Athenian invasion of Sicily in 415 BCE. Both ended empires that had seemed invincible. Tom Ricks reported in The Washington Post April 30, that military leaders are considering whether, "the surest -- and perhaps now the only -- way to bring stability to Iraq is to divide the country into three pieces." The alternative view is not to press on to victory, Ricks says, but to withdraw and allow a civil war to settle the question.

America has lost more than a division's worth of brave soldiers to the war, with over 2,400 killed and 17,500 maimed. Our national debt increases by over $2 billion every week to pay for the war. America's international reputation is at its lowest point in history. Even our closest allies mistrust our motives, question our vision and are saddened by our abandonment of shared values. It is not that they resent American leadership; they just do not want this kind of leadership.

But it is even worse. The administration's counter-proliferation strategy has made these dangers grow, not shrink. Proliferation problems over the past five years have gotten worse, not better. Most of the construction and development of Iran's nuclear program has occurred since 2000. The same is true in North Korea. In the past three years, while we have been bogged down in Iraq, North Korea has pulled out of the agreement that had frozen its plutonium program, gone from enough material for perhaps two bombs to an estimated ten bombs worth, withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and declared itself a nuclear-weapon state. U.S. policy has completely failed to stop either country's efforts.

The danger of nuclear terrorism has also grown as the ideology of al Qaeda has spread like wildfire throughout the Muslim world. But our programs to secure and eliminate the highly-enriched uranium and plutonium scattered in stockpiles in dozens of countries have not kept pace. If Osama bin Laden can get his hands on these materials, his group can almost certainly build, deliver and detonate a bomb that can destroy any American city. Without this material he is powerless to do so. Yet we spend only $1 billion on year these programs. We spend this much every 4 days in Iraq.

There is more bad news -- such as the administration's abandonment of any negotiations to reduce Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals (which account for 96 percent of the global total of these weapons) and the precarious state of the entire nonproliferation regime (due in large part to the administration's neglect of the core treaties) -- but you get the point.

Perhaps the most disheartening is that our senior government officials have not acknowledged these failures or given the slightest indication that they are working on correctives. On the contrary, the 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States repeats the emphasis on preemptive war, this time focusing on Iran rather than Iraq. As faux news anchor Stephen Colbert said in his mocking tribute to President Bush at the White House Correspondents dinner, "When the president decides something on Monday, he still believes it on Wednesday - no matter what happened Tuesday."

The administration is strategically exhausted. Its only solution to the problem of Iran is to repeat the Iraq playbook. The speeches, the refusal to negotiate directly with Iran, the unnerving presence of Iranian exiles whispering sweet promises in Washington, the framing of the issue as one of the "credibility of the Security Council" are all straight out of the campaign that successfully fooled a majority of the nation, convincing them that Iraq was an urgent threat and somehow linked to September 11.

Thus, it falls to those of us outside of the governing circles to detail the failures, to forge new strategies and champion a new course. Some are already doing just that; more are needed. Most importantly, we must expose fully the mistakes of this strategy and of those who developed it so that America does not lurch into an unnecessary war. Not again.

For a preview of Show Us the War, a new project designed to help fill the void in the American media's coverage of the war, click here.

Show Us the War's bi-weekly policy analyses are produced the Ploughshares Fund, a public grantmaking foundation that supports initiatives aimed at influencing policies to stop the spread and use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and to prevent armed conflict. For the past twenty-five years, Ploughshares has invested in peace and security worldwide.