Today's date:
Winter 2004

Madeleine's Maxim

Madeleine Albright is the former US secretary of State. Her memoir, Madam Secretary, has just been published.

Washington -- Overwhelming force can win a war quickly, but it can't win the peace. Only overwhelming support at home and abroad can do that.

The United States is -- or, rather, it was -- an unusual superpower. We thought our responsibility as an indispensable nation was the use not just of military power, but also the power of our ideas and the power of organizing multilateral action. Since there was no other country to balance us, we needed to limit ourselves in the exercise of American might. Those limits were ignored in the war with Iraq.

The Iraq war was a war of choice. When I was secretary of State I said many of the same things about Saddam Hussein that George W. Bush has said. But I never thought Hussein constituted a level of threat that required immediate action.

It is much more difficult to convince people to agree with your choice to go to war if the threat itself is not convincing. The neo-cons did, in fact, have an agenda prior to 9/11 and used the vehicle of that terror attack to put their agenda into play. They therefore found themselves with motivating factors that didn't all ?t together -- Saddam's repression, his weapons, his threat to Israel, his defiance of the United Nations, his supposed links to terror groups -- so they kept shifting ground.

To be fair, as Franklin Roosevelt found out, it is hard to move a democracy to war. That requires clarity of purpose, but also honesty if you expect the public to stay the course.

I questioned the so-called "Colin Powell maxim" -- that the US should only engage in military conflict with overwhelming force -- because I thought it was possible to use a combination of diplomacy and limited force and still accomplish your political objectives, as we did in Kosovo. You don't always need overwhelming might.

But if you are going to use overwhelming might, as the US did in Iraq, you must have overwhelming domestic support. Deployment of such force is a very big deal because it can take a long time and requires a variety of American military resources, including the call-up of national guards and reserves, which disrupts civilian life.

The post-9/11 security imperatives in the US add another problematic dimension. The Pentagon is now telling the state of Oregon, for example, that its national guard must be deployed in Iraq for at least a year. Yet that same national guard is supposed to be the "first responder" under the Homeland Security system to a terrorist attack. Sending these troops to Iraq is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In the end, if there is not widespread public support for the political objectives of the war, the morale behind such a vast deployment will soon lose steam. I think we are beginning to see this now.

Also, the costs associated with the long-term political objectives -- in this case remaking the Middle East starting with Iraq -- are enormous. Even the sole superpower can't do that without allies.

I never believed in the link between Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism. I did believe that the central front was Afghanistan and other pockets of terrorist cells linked though Afghanistan. After the war there, I thought we should have continued to pay close attention to the situation so we wouldn't have what we have today -- warlords reestablishing themselves and relegating Hamid Karzai to being the mayor of Kabul instead of president of the country.

But what has happened in Iraq has been something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While there was not a terrorist connection to Iraq before the war, there now is. Because of the chaos and the US presence as an occupying power, there is a magnetic effect that draws people who hate us to come into Iraq to take a shot at the Americans.

Even so, that does not make Iraq the "central" front. We are not paying attention to the root causes of terrorism elsewhere, including what is happening in Afghanistan. Are we now going to fool ourselves into thinking that if we get rid of the terrorists in Iraq, it will be over?

Then there is North Korea. North Korea was more dangerous than Iraq before the war, and it remains more dangerous now. If we have to act there, the whole Iraq focus stretches our forces very thin.

I've never understood this misguided lack of urgency toward North Korea on the part of the Bush administration.

The UN inspectors did a good job in Iraq. They destroyed most of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction by 1998. Since the rest couldn't be accounted for, the logical assumption was that Iraq still had them somewhere. While I was willing to believe this, I didn't think they posed an imminent threat.

North Korea, however, is an imminent threat. We were proud of our "agreed framework" that froze its plutonium program for eight years, which would have produced 100–150 nuclear bombs over that period. But now it is back at it. The threat is real.

Whatever the modality -- be it multiparty talks or direct talks between North Korea and the US -- the best way to cool the crisis is for the US to agree to a non-aggression pledge in return for the end of North Korea's nuclear program. We need to ask for more. Since it broke the pledge to freeze its nuclear program and resumed it, the demand for a freeze is no longer good enough.

PREEMPTIVE INTELLIGENCE | In most cases intelligence is not good enough to support preemptive action. In my experience, the intelligence I've seen could never provide a definitive answer. There is never anything so certain as to say "this is happening right now." All policymakers can do is make a deduction. But you can't base a whole doctrine on deduction.

In the Clinton administration we launched cruise missile attacks on what we knew were Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and a weapons production factory in Sudan. That is one thing. But to launch a war and an invasion on deduction? That is what makes this policy so dangerous.