If Bob Novak is right — and I’d really like to believe he is, though I have my doubts — then whoever gets to be president on November 2 will be forced to accept the reality that the Iraq war is simply unwinnable and that there is little alternative to a fairly orderly but rapid withdrawal of American forces from the land between the rivers.
Now, Novak put this in the context of a second Bush Jong Il administration, and Lord knows that’s just as likely an outcome as any. (At the risk of losing my newly acquired LRC member card and decoder ring, I must admit that I am looking forward to a Kerry victory, in part because Bush Jong Il and his entire clueless politburo needs to pay a price for what they’ve done, in part because Kerry really does have a better understanding of what al-Qaeda is and how to fight it, and in part because many nominal conservatives who spent the last four years defending Bush’s Great Big Intrusive Gummint will suddenly find real religion again. In my heart of hearts, though, I’d rather the presidency — and the entire executive — remain unfilled and unstaffed, and the White House turned into an honest motel…) But I have a hard time believing that the architects of this disaster — especially those inside the administration — will accept an Iraq evacuation, even if that is the price for continued executive branch employment.
(And, quite frankly, I have a hard time believing that the "scholars" of the American Enterprise Institute would accept a pull-out calmly. They’ve invested far too much of themselves in this incredibly stupid adventure. I imagine them gathering at, say, the Old Ebbitt Grill, getting themselves good and drunk, forming an outraged rabble, and then marching on the White House…)
But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Novak is correct, and that the next president will acknowledge the obvious and cut and run from Iraq. It will happen eventually.
Why? Let’s review very quickly why the Mesopotamian venture is failing. It is not because the soldiers and Marines in Iraq are poorly led, or have inferior equipment, or are badly trained, or even don’t have the support of enough of the country. It isn’t even because the political leaders are incompetent, though the incompetence of Bush Jong Il and his politburo got us there in the first place. The US military in Iraq is solidly led and reasonably well equipped. No, it is failing because the political objective those soldiers were sent to accomplish — the democratization of the Middle East, or the scaled-down desire to simply create a pro-American Iraq — is simply unachievable at any price we are willing or able to pay. And there simply is no amount of pain we can inflict upon the Iraqi nationalist and Islamist resistance at this point that will compel enough of them to accept defeat and put down their arms.
It doesn’t matter how many of them we kill. It doesn’t matter how many times we take, retake, and re-retake Najaf, Samara or Sadr City. It doesn’t matter how many swell, well-planned and "successful" operations we conduct. It doesn’t matter how many schools we repair or hospitals we build. It doesn’t matter that we can go where we want, kill whomever we want, arrest whomever we want, and destroy whatever we feel like.
The next morning, when the rubble clears, there will be more Iraqis willing to threaten, assassinate, intimidate, plant bombs, organize, and kill our soldiers. Their start-up costs are insignificant compared to ours, and they self-organize. Drip drip drip.
(Had we stopped at toppling the Iraqi government in April 2003 and given everyone in Iraq 90 or 120 days to form a new government and hand over all the old Ba’athis so we could quickly leave, we’d of had a much better chance of something called "success" and earned a lot more good will, both in Iraq and out of it.)
The truth is fairly simple but hard to accept: we are not wise enough, nor good enough, nor strong enough, nor rich enough to save a people who neither want our help nor need it. (We barely have the wisdom, goodness, strength, and wealth to save ourselves, much less anyone else.)
But I suspect few Americans — Democrats or Republicans — will consider any of these things. That requires a thoughtfulness I’m not sure many Americans are really capable of. To far too many, we are good enough, wise enough, and strong enough to remake others, even against their will. So true believers in the war will go looking for someone to blame for its failure.
If Bush Jong Il gets re-elected — or reappointed, or whatever — then the domestic political fallout of a withdrawal from Iraq will be manageable. Team Bush will paint a happy face on Iraq, call the January "elections" a success, and probably start a six-or-ten month pullout that will likely be accelerated. Last American out of Iraq shut the lights and don’t let the door hit you on the butt or blow up as you leave.
The mindless minions of Bush Jong Il will probably live with that, though many will go looking for someone to blame. Certainly Democrats — those powerful, evil, omnipresent, obstructionist Democrats — will come in for their fair share of blame. Anti-war types of all stripes — Howard Dean, Brent Scowcroft, Pat Buchanan, LRC — will also be recruited for team blame. (Will they blame neoconservatives? Gawd, I wish, but probably not.) But because the Party Faithful must believe the story told by Bush Jong Il, and because he will call the whole thing a "a victory" (and then change the subject after the first coup in Iraq) and "a success," it will be fairly calm, sedate and well-managed.
However, if the patrician junior senator from Massachusetts is president, then the political consequences of the war will become downright toxic. Because then Iraq will become one of those dreaded "Democrat Wars" Bob Dole (and more than a few cranky Republicans) decry in less guarded moments. Because a Kerry administration will simply be able to do nothing right. The endeavor in Iraq will suddenly have very few friends in the Republican Party.
It is common currency among many committed Republicans that Democrats know nothing about the military and are simply incapable of commanding it properly. America needs a strong Commander-in-Chief, and a wimpy, wussy Democrat more worried about day care, health care, hair care and blow jobs is simply incapable of issuing orders that generals and admirals will respect and obey. Bill Clinton tried to prove otherwise, but his handful of wars and his recreational activities have, I fear, simply reinforced this notion among the Red State Party Faithful.
So, if Kerry presides over a withdrawal from Iraq — even the same withdrawal that Bush would have undertaken in virtually the same way — be prepared for the big lie, a "stabbed-in-the-back" theory that will bitterly and angrily poison American politics and society, likely worse than post-Vietnam recriminations damaged our national politics.
Expect to be told — to be lectured and hectored — that were it not for likes of us, for dissent, America would have won, if we had just been as united as we were on September 12, 2001.
Never mind that there was no winning.
During the First World War, the German Imperial government imposed very strict censorship on battle reports. Many at home in Germany had no idea how badly things had gone for the army during the last three months of fighting in 1918. That, combined with the abdication of the government which had waged the war and thus was unable to take responsibility for losing it, allowed an exceptionally poisonous lie to take hold: the "November Criminals," the socialists and Jews who supposedly sold the nation out, who stabbed in the back and defeated an army that was not beaten on the battlefield. That lie, and the hatred and mistrust it engendered within German society, made it virtually impossible for Germans to govern themselves effectively during the 1920s.
And we all know what that eventually led to.
October 16, 2004
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.