Putting Money Where Our Mouths Are

Posted: Apr 02, 2004 12:00 AM

Let?s begin with a riddle. I?ve been everywhere. And nowhere. At the same time. Where was I?

 Las Vegas.

 It?s the only city in the world where, in a single evening, one can stroll through Saint Mark?s Square, ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and enjoy a view of the Empire State Building. Well, sort of.

 There?s certainly more to Vegas than gambling (or ?gaming,? as the locals prefer to call it). The casinos feature plenty of art, some real, some imitation. Galleries display real works by Monet, Manet (who hated it when he got Monet?s mail) and Renoir.

 But gambling is clearly the main attraction. You can bet on virtually anything: cards, dice, athletic contests. You can do simple wagers or fancy parlays. If you can predict it, you can make money on it, even exhibition baseball, where the players aren?t really even trying to win. The only thing you can?t bet on is something that?s already happened.

 And that?s what makes Vegas different from Washington. Here, you can make money on something that?s already happened. You simply have to claim to have foreseen it.
Just ask Richard Clark, or Ron Suskind and Paul O?Neill. They?ve all become best-selling authors by writing books, in 2004, explaining what the Bush administration should have done, and should not have done, in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

 And they all agree that last year?s war in Iraq was a critical mistake. Looking back, they say they were always looking forward. ?I blame the entire Bush leadership for continuing to work on Cold War issues when they back in power in 2001,? Clarke said on ?60 Minutes.? ?They wanted to work on the same issues right away: Iraq, Star Wars. Not new issues, the new threats that had developed over the preceding eight years.?

 For his part, former Treasury Secretary O?Neill says the administration was interested in invading Iraq from Day One. ?It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying ?Go find me a way to do this,?? O?Neill told CBS.

 What a coincidence that this prescience is being revealed now, just as a presidential election gets underway, and when it?s likely to show President Bush in the worst possible light. But somehow, other possible predictions, ones that wouldn?t reflect badly on the president, didn?t make these books.

For example, consider the American intervention in Afghanistan. In theory, both O?Neill and Clarke should have opposed that action. After all, Clarke told ?60 Minutes? that Osama bin Laden had long claimed the United States wanted to occupy an Arab nation. He says that, because of our invasion of Iraq, ?al Qaeda and organizations like it, offshoots of it, second-generation al Qaeda have been greatly strengthened.?

And here?s O?Neill: ?For me, the notion of pre-emption, that the U.S. has the unilateral right to do whatever we decide to do, is a really huge leap.?

But we certainly acted unilaterally in Afghanistan. We pre-empted the Taliban government there, before there was ironclad proof it had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks. And, if our intervention in Iraq was going to anger al Qaeda and make it more dangerous, the terrorist group should have been far more upset by our intervention in Afghanistan, where the Taliban had given al Qaeda free rein.

And the Afghanistan invasion, like Iraq today, was controversial. As New York Times commentator R.W. Apple Jr. wrote in October 2001, ?Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word ?quagmire? has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad. Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam? Is the United States facing another stalemate on the other side of the world??

 Now, if Afghanistan had actually turned into that ?quagmire,? it seems likely Clarke?s and Suskind?s books would have focused on it as well. The authors could easily have cited their principled opposition to the intervention and taken the president to task for it.

But as things turned out, we quickly drained the swamp, removed the cruel Taliban, broke up many al Qaeda cells and put Afghanistan on a path toward self-government. And because it was a big success for the administration, we?ll hear no more about the intervention from the president?s detractors.

A gambler is always happy to brag about his victories (I had St. Joe?s with the points), but conveniently fails to mention his losses (I really thought Syracuse would beat Alabama). In that way, at least, Vegas actually is similar to Washington.

But let?s remember?in Iraq, the game isn?t over yet. My money says that in five years, Iraq will be a thriving, democratic nation. And we?ll be reading books from D.C. insiders who will explain that they knew it would be.

Bet on it.