Last week I was in Canada, where the national media gave noticeably more comprehensive accounts of what was happening in Iraq than most Americans got. By Friday, I woke up with an abrupt thought: Has the United States ever lost a war so badly?
Throw out 1812, when America was a tiny, 36-year-old postcolonial outpost. The only comparable military engagement in U.S. history is Vietnam. Even there, it took several years of low-grade engagement on behalf of an existing, CIA–run South Vietnamese government before the war inflamed, and it took more years, until 1968's Tet Offensive, before it became clear that a U.S. military victory was no sure thing.
In Iraq, there is no native government—and if one is installed on June 30, it is sure to have little or no legitimacy. The situation, as it now stands, is the U.S. is waging war against the vast majority of the Iraqi people, who are now all but united in wanting us gone—and on behalf of what, exactly? Why are we fighting them? Why, for the right to impose democracy!
Here's Bush last week on the young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr: "This is a person, and followers, who are trying to say, we don't want democracy—as a matter of fact, we'll decide the course of democracy by the use of force. And that is the opposite of democracy."
And you thought irony was dead.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, which also saw a major deterioration of U.S. control last week, the political and the military decisions of Bush and his cabal have to rank as among the worst in our long history. For a president who wants to be known as a "war president," Dubya has sure made a mess of things.
The mess, as with Vietnam, is based on some consistent self-delusions that have plagued the operation from the start. I wrote in this space last year that the tepid reception given U.S. soldiers when they invaded was a sure sign that the U.S. would lose this war, the only questions being how quickly and at a cost of how many lives. Even now, few in either party in D.C. appear ready to publicly concede that the majority of Iraqis don't want us there.
That basic, willfully self-flattering misperception has underlain both Bush's military and political missteps. It meant that Bush's crew assumed Iraqis would be patient and wouldn't take offense at postponed elections, a disastrous economy, minimal security, and the auctioning of their country to Western profiteers. It meant that the U.S. thought it could get away with little or no cultivation of the sort of civil institutions necessary for any true democracy. It meant that the Iraqi National Congress was assumed to be capable of being seen as legitimate; instead, the INC's craven ineptness has contributed to the lack of a clear plan for a native government a mere 11 weeks before it is supposed to assume power. It meant that the White House put domestic political considerations— minimizing troop counts and trying to hide and undercount casualties—above the realities of the number of troops needed to subdue a country by force. It meant that vast sections of the country, assumed to be quiescent, could be handed over to underequipped foreign contingents better suited to peacekeeping and reconstruction duties— at the same time that Bush's arrogance and the war's public unpopularity has meant that in most countries, sending troops for combat has little public support. At this point, more countries are considering leaving Iraq than increasing their support for a U.S.–run quagmire.
There seem to be no good options that Bush (or John Kerry, for that matter) are willing to entertain. The siege of Fallujah has yielded conflicting accounts: American generals insisting that most of the dead are insurgents, Iraqi hospital workers insisting the Americans have mostly killed women and children. It's immaterial which is correct; at every step, if the U.S. uses too much force, the perceived death toll will do all the recruiting needed to fuel a continuing insurgency. If the U.S. backs off, insurgents will press their cause. And in any scenario, the thinly spread, exhausted, undertrained, and underequipped U.S. soldiers are in no position to either redeploy to an unraveling Afghanistan or to actually combat, you know, terror.
You remember terror, don't you? The supposed reason we're doing all this? All it will take is one major terror attack on U.S. soil to remind us of how totally misspent our priorities have been in Iraq.
Ultimately, this can only end with the U.S. leaving. What's still unclear is whether we will leave behind a truly international administrative body, or whether we will be driven out by a revolutionary rebellion or civil war. We know how it won't end: with the sort of Norman Rockwell vision of democracy that Beltway fantasists continue to insist will magically transpire.