The End Of The Fighting – But What is Victory?

The San Jose Mercury News, May 11, 2003
By Leon E. Panetta
On a carrier in the Pacific, the president of the United States declared the end of the fighting in Iraq but he was careful not to declare victory.

Some have said the reason is that under international law and the Geneva conventions, a declaration of victory would require the release of Iraqi prisoners of war and bar U.S. forces from trying to kill Saddam Hussein – if he’s not already dead.

Others have said that until there is greater stability in Iraq , an end to random hostilities and shootings, and U.S. forces find weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein, it is difficult to proclaim total victory.

The reality is that the reign of Saddam Hussein has ended and that U.S. forces displayed remarkable courage and effectiveness in the attack and fall of Baghdad. The rapid military success should be recognized and acknowledged by all Americans as a tribute to our military power. U.S. forces followed the orders of their commander-in-chief and did the job well.

But the real victory in Iraq will be defined more by what the United States does in the aftermath of the battle than in winning the battle itself. Peace, stability and freedom in the Middle East were among the goals of the War in Iraq. Those goals have yet to be achieved.

In the days ahead, this nation will be tested as never before as to whether it can fight for peace as effectively as it fought for war. Two very distinct paths lie ahead and depending on which is followed, President Bush will determine whether the United States will be recognized as a global empire or world leader. The War in Iraq is but a prelude to the real challenges that lie ahead.

The Imperial Path

On Fox News, Bill Kristol, the founding editor of The Weekly Standard, spoke up for taking the more brazen imperial approach: “We need to error on the side of being strong. And if people want to say we’re an imperial power, fine.”

Oxford professor Niall Ferguson, in a recent address to the Council on Foreign Relations declared, “America is the empire that dare not speak its name.”

He believes Americans will always be self-deceiving – and even self-defeating – imperialists. “Its simply a suspension of disbelief by Americans,” he said, “They think they’re so different that when they have bases in foreign territories, it’s not an empire. When they invade sovereign territory, it’s not an empire.”

This view of the world says the U.S. should lead with its fist first. If Syria, Iran and Libya do not cooperate and end their support of terrorism, take them down with another display of “shock and awe.” If North Korea continues to threaten the U.S. with its nuclear weapons, preemptively attack their missile sites and leaders.

With the U.S. at its pinnacle of power, this neo-imperial philosophy believes that now is the time to strike with or without the support of our allies and reshape the world with friendly democratic regimes. Of course, lives will be lost and alliances destroyed, but that is the price for being strong. In the end, the world will thank us for doing their dirty work.

The Road to Diplomacy

There is another path. In many ways, it is more difficult because it requires patience, understanding, diplomacy and respect for others. For the neo-imperialists, all of that is viewed as weakness. But I believe it is the path that distinguishes great leaders and great nations.

With the overthrow of the Baghdad regime, there is a unique opportunity to encourage those leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere who have resisted peace and societal reforms to confront the failure of their efforts. Now is the time to take the risks necessary for ending hostilities and at long last reverse history’s frequent plunge into racial, religious and cultural conflict.

The United States, with the support of the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, has taken the first positive step by proposing a “road map” for Middle East peace. The plan calls for an end to violence, a pullback from Israeli settlements and a Palestinian state by 2005.

The question being posed in Washington is how much effort the administration is prepared to make to ensure that the plan does not join a 55-year-old list of defunct Middle East peace initiatives. The concern is that the parties will continue to resist the steps to peace and the State Department, under a weakened Secretary Colin Powell, will not have the political weight to implement a policy that does not have the full backing of powerful operators in the Pentagon.

But clearly, this is the moment in time when the United States has maximum leverage on all of the parties to push them toward agreement. As Israel has learned, this is one conflict that will never be resolved by sending in more tanks. Diplomacy, not military power, will determine the fate of Middle East peace.

The same is true for North Korea. Again, the United States has taken the right step by seeking to negotiate agreement that will dismantle North Korea’s nuclear capability in exchange for aid. There appears to be progress but again the effort is threatened by the unpredictable behavior of North Korea’s leaders and the hardliners in the U.S. who believe that “regime change” is the only solution. With North Korea ‘s nuclear and military force, the fear is that the result could be nuclear confrontation.

Diplomacy will not be easy but it is the only alternative at this time.

Teddy Roosevelt led the United States into the 20th century with the policy “speak softly but carry a big stick.” As we enter the 21st century, the U.S. has proven that we have a “big stick” but we have yet to prove we can “speak softly.”

The line between whether the U.S. is an imperial power or a world leader will be decided in the days and months following the fall of Baghdad.

If the U.S. can exercise the leadership necessary to build on its military success by working with our allies and the United Nations to establish true stability in Iraq, a lasting peace in the Middle East, and a resolution to the dispute with North Korea, it will have risen to the challenge of history and distinguished itself as a world leader. That is not just the right path to take for peace and stability in the world, it is the only way we can finally proclaim victory.


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