Politics & Policy

“Lessons to Take”

Addressing the strain on the president.

Political analysts sit impatiently, awaiting the crystallization of thought on the Iraqi question before the Democrats meet to contend in a national election. There will be delegates in Boston who will want a straight-out denunciation of the war combined with a pledge to pull out. Call that the Howard Dean delegation. The resolution of the plank on Iraq will be done of course by John Kerry. There are grounds to predict that he will be the Hubert Humphrey of 2004, arguing for measured withdrawal from Iraq, as Humphrey called for that from Vietnam, leaving it to George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy to speak for the militant pullout wing.

Observing it all from the ramparts in the White House, President Bush needs to allocate time to two related questions: What should he do, given the disposition of the voters? And then too, what is correct for him to do as leader, fighting for reconfirmation in November?

A special strain on Bush is the absorbing of what has gone wrong in Iraq, in order to plot a course of action which is guided by what has gone wrong. The planted axiom, of course, is that we are in Iraq because we needed to be there. If we argue retrospectively that the venture was doomed at the outset, commentary would focus only on the question, Why did we take it on? But whatever public thought Mr. Bush gives to the Iraq venture in the days ahead, he does well to acknowledge the weaknesses in the course of action we took.

These have been very neatly prescinded by Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University. His essay appears in The American Conservative, a monthly journal associated with Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos. It is highly literate, wonderfully well edited, and pursues what, in the loose language of ideological classification, would be called “paleoconservatism.”

What Mr. Bacevich does is to list “Ten Lessons to Take Away from Iraq.” Most of them compel interest and need deliberation by Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice.

‐”Ideology makes a poor substitute for strategy.”

Our mission in Iraq, after the deposition of Saddam, was fueled by our enthusiasm for American ideals. “Policymakers both Democratic and Republican,” observes Bacevich, “uncorked old vials of Wilsonian illusion.”

‐”Wars leave loose ends.”

Wonderful, concise language. “The United States has exchanged the limited burdens of containment for the far more onerous burdens of occupation.”

‐”Allies have choices-and will exercise them.”

“Nations whose support we once assumed to be a given now question the acceptability of the Pax Americana and may yet muster the collective will to proffer an alternative.” Thus, the fragmented coalition against Saddam threatens NATO solidarity.

‐”‘Shock and awe’ gets you only so far.”

This is very plain, and the author concludes, “The United States military is no closer today to devising a technological solution to the riddle of unconventional war than it was when Vietnam ended in defeat.”

‐”The margin of U.S. military supremacy is thinner than advertised.”

The shortage of our straitened military resources is every day visible. We have called up reserves for the first time in decades. We needed to move forces from South Korea to Iraq. And in Iraq, with 140,000 U.S. troops, we can’t yet guarantee safe passage from the Baghdad airport to Baghdad.

‐”The myth of American casualty aversion is just that.”

This point is not self-establishing, but the author is saying that our failure to press the war conclusively, for fear of increased casualties, denies the purposiveness of the American will.

‐”So too [is it a myth] that there is an American genius for spreading democracy.”

We aren’t particularly good at it, says Bacevich, so we should devise fresh ideas. Meanwhile, consider the possibility that “bringing democracy to the Arab world is akin to making bricks without straw.”

‐And a more obvious point, “It’s hard to win when you don’t know whom you’re fighting.”

Who’s the boss over there in Iraq? And how do we digest the fact that there are more insurgents today than a year ago?

Bush needs to dwell on these points. So, of course, do the Democrats. How they distill their programs will have obvious consequences for Iraq, less obvious consequences, but consequences just the same, for American politics for years to come.


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