With various neoconservative notables acknowledging in a forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair that the Iraq war is a disaster, the debate over "who lost Iraq?" has begun in earnest. As was the case with Vietnam, this argument promises to be bitter and protracted. As with Vietnam, the outcome of the debate will have a large effect on the future course of U.S. policy.
The protagonists divide into three broad groups.
The Bush dead-enders. Although dwindling in number, President Bush's defenders will ascribe failure in Iraq to a loss of nerve, blaming media bias and liberal defeatists for sowing the erroneous impression that the war has become unwinnable. Bush loyalists will portray opposition to the war as tantamount to betraying the troops. Count on them to appropriate Ronald Reagan's description of Vietnam as "an honorable cause." Updating the "stab in the back" thesis, they will claim that a collapse of will on the home front snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Baghdad as surely as it did in Saigon.
The buck-stops-at-the-top camp. Adherents of this second view are currently in the ascendant, attributing the troubles roiling Iraq to massive incompetence in the Bush administration. In a war notable for an absence of accountability, demands for fixing accountability are becoming increasingly insistent. Parties eager to divert attention from their own culpability are pointing fingers. Senior military officers target Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Congressional Democrats who voted for the war and neoconservatives direct their fire against Rumsfeld and Bush. The theme common to all of these finger-pointers: Don't blame us; the Bush team's stupidity, stubbornness and internal dysfunction doomed the American effort.
The conspiracy theorists. Even before the United States invaded Iraq, critics on the far left and far right charged that powerful groups operating behind the scenes were promoting war for their own nefarious purposes. Big Oil, Halliburton, the military-industrial complex and Protestant evangelicals said to be keen on defending Israel all came in for criticism and even grassy-knoll-style paranoia.
None of these putative masterminds, however, attracted anything like the attention devoted to the neoconservatives. It's true that throughout the 1990s neocons clamored for a showdown with Saddam Hussein. In the eyes of their critics, neoconservatives in power, such as Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of Defense, and those inhabiting the fringes of power, such as political journalist William Kristol, conspired to hijack 9/11 in pursuit of their own obsessions. And, voila, the country landed in a quagmire.
As the endgame in Iraq approaches, the score-settling promises to get downright ugly. Those who observe this spectacle will need a strong stomach.
Still, whatever their political inclinations, Americans should welcome this debate. At a bare minimum, the eruption of blame and backstabbing will offer considerable entertainment value. To read (on the Vanity Fair website) that neoconservative David Frum, former White House speechwriter and author of a fawning tribute to Bush, has discovered that "the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas," is simply a hoot.
More substantively, the purging of political elites infesting Washington always has a cleansing effect. Figuring out "who lost Iraq?" ought to provide the occasion for throwing out more than a few rascals who hold office and discrediting others — a process that will no doubt get a kick-start with today's midterm elections. With luck, those surviving will be at least momentarily chastened, perhaps giving rise to an Iraq syndrome akin to the Vietnam syndrome, and which at least for a while will save us from another similar debacle.
We should not kid ourselves that political sniping of the sort now in evidence will yield conclusive answers. These are merely the preliminaries. But let the preliminaries begin — so that we can work our way forward to the main event. It cannot fail to involve Americans more generally and to pose fundamental questions about 21st century governance, this nation's real role in a globalized world and the illusions about American power and prerogatives that spawned the Iraq war.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His latest book is "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War."