THE WAR IS LOST. By most measures of what the Bush administration forecast for its adventure in Iraq, it is already a failure. The war was going to make the Middle East a more peaceful place. It was going to undercut terrorism. It was going to show the evil dictators of the world that American power is not to be resisted. It was going to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. It was going to stabilize oil markets. The American army was going to be greeted with flowers. None of that happened. The most radical elements of various fascist movements in the Arab world have been energized by the invasion of Iraq. The American occupation is a rallying point for terrorists. Instead of undermining extremism, Washington has sponsored its next phase, and now moderates in every Arab society are more on the defensive than ever.
Before the war, the threat of America's overwhelming military dominance could intimidate, but now such force has been shown to be extremely limited in what it can actually accomplish. For the sake of "regime change," the United States brought a sledge hammer down on Iraq, only to profess surprise that, even as Saddam Hussein remains at large, the structures of the nation's civil society are in ruins. The humanitarian agencies necessary to the rebuilding of those structures are fleeing Iraq.
The question for Americans is, Now what? Democrats and Republicans alike want to send in more US soldiers. Some voices are raised in the hope that the occupation can be more fully "internationalized," which remains unlikely while Washington retains absolute control. But those who would rush belligerent reinforcements to Iraq are making the age-old mistake.
When brutal force generates resistance, the first impulse is to increase force levels. But, as the history of conflicts like this shows, that will result only in increased resistance. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has rejected the option of more troops for now, but, in the name of force-protection, the pressures for escalation will build as US casualties mount. The present heartbreak of one or two GI deaths a day will seem benign when suicide bombers, mortar shells, or even heavier missile fire find their ways into barracks and mess halls.
Either reinforcements will be sent to the occupation, or present forces will loosen the restraints with which they reply to provocation. Both responses will generate more bloodshed and only postpone the day when the United States must face the truth of its situation.
The Bush administration's hubristic foreign policy has been efficiently exposed as based on nothing more than hallucination. High-tech weaponry can kill unwilling human beings, but it cannot force them to embrace an unwanted idea. As rekindled North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs prove, Washington's rhetoric of "evil" is as self-defeating as it is self-delusional. No one could have predicted a year ago that the fall from the Bush high horse of American Empire would come so hard and so quickly. Where are the comparisons with Rome now? The rise and fall of imperial Washington took not hundreds of years, but a few hundred days.
Sooner or later, the United States must admit that it has made a terrible mistake in Iraq, and it must move quickly to undo it. That means the United States must yield not only command of the occupation force, but participation in it. The United States must renounce any claim to power or even influence over Iraq, including Iraqi oil. The United States must accept the humiliation that would surely accompany its being replaced in Iraq by the very nations it denigrated in the build-up to the war.
With the United States thus removed from the Iraqi crucible, those who have rallied to oppose the great Satan will loose their raison d'etre, and the Iraqi people themselves can take responsibility for rebuilding their wrecked nation.
All of this might seem terribly unlikely today, but something like it is inevitable. The only question is whether it happens over the short term, as the result of responsible decision-making by politicians in Washington, or over the long term, as the result of a bloody and unending horror.
The so-called "lessons" of Vietnam are often invoked by hawks and doves alike, but here is one that applies across the political spectrum. The American people saw that that war was lost in January 1968, even as the Tet Offensive was heralded as a victory by the Pentagon and the White House. But for five more years, Washington refused to face the truth of its situation, until at last it had no choice.
Because American leaders could not admit the nation's mistake, and move to undo it, hundreds of thousands of people died, or was it millions? The war in Iraq is lost. What will it take to face that truth this time?