Few people thought more or knew more about war than Winston Churchill.
“Let us learn our lessons,” he wrote on taking up arms. “Never believe any war will be smooth and easy or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events… incompetent or arrogant commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant fortune, ugly surprise, awful miscalculations.”
Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and the other neoconservatives at the Defense Department would have done well to read this passage — and to take it seriously — many months ago. Their war, which has become our war, was conceptually mistaken and has proved an operational debacle teetering on the edge of disaster. The warnings were there, and not just the warnings by critical observers. Within the government, there were studies, serious studies, of all the things that could go wrong, and there were sketches, at least, of how these could be prevented or contained. But these were inadequate to overcome the hubris of the planners.
Remember Wolfowitz’s response to General Eric Shinseki’s estimate that several hundred thousand troops would be required in Iraq in the postwar period? “Wildly off the mark,” he said, and the Pentagon let it be known that on the order of 100,000 troops would suffice. There are now about 150,000 troops in Iraq, and the word is that Rumsfeld wants to send more. Two battalions of the Army’s Third Division, originally scheduled to come home in August and September, have been informed that they must stay in Iraq at least through the summer.
And here’s more from pre-war Wolfowitz: “There is no history of ethnic strife in Iraq”; “Iraqi civilians will welcome an American-led liberation force”; “Nations that oppose war with Iraq will likely sign up to help rebuild it…. I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq in reconstruction.” For any one of these gross miscalculations, let alone for the disinformation along the way — not only about the weapons of mass destruction, but also about the connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein — a man of honor would by now have resigned.
One wonders what Wolfowitz — he who did not “yield to war fever” but helped father it — is thinking these days, as the magnitude of his errors becomes impossible to deny; as the toll of American casualties grows; as the refusal of other nations to come to our aid without a specific United Nations mandate becomes clear; as the costs of the war, approaching $4 billion a month, grow; as the task of pacifying this vandalized nation seems stalled, as it becomes obvious that we are, indeed, an occupying power.
Do not look to Vietnam for precedence; instead, think Israel in Lebanon in 1982, greeted by garlands of flowers and singing and dancing, soon after by land mines and rockets.
So where is the dilemma?
If we stay, it may well be years before we can withdraw with dignity, leaving behind a plausibly democratic sovereign Iraq. Those years will cost us dear, in life and in treasure. (By the way, Iraq today is costing us more than the much debated and quite stingy prescription drug program that we’re told is all we can afford.) Yet we cannot simply pack up and leave. Imagine the chaos that would ensue. As bad, imagine the collapse of America’s stature, hence also power, in the larger world. The Israeli-Palestinian effort at peace would implode, and an America sulkingly chastened, turned radically and divisively inward, entirely hesitant to use its power whether for good or for gain, would embolden would-be tyrants and evil-doers everywhere. Most likely, then, we will search for a propitious moment to declare victory and leave, blaming the ensuing mess on the Iraqis themselves.
The American Imperium over before truly begun is a tempting prospect, but one that upon rational reflection leads to fear and trembling.
In the old days, the president would always attend the Army vs. Navy football game, crossing the field at halftime as a sign of his impartiality between the two services. We cannot do the same. There is not yet, and may never be, a coherent Iraqi opposition to the American occupation that merits our support. We must sit on the American side, together with our cheerleading president and his muster of peacocks, his ascension of arrogants. We cannot expect Colin Powell, ever the good soldier hence not yet the great secretary of state, to resign in protest, nor Rumsfeld in shame. We cannot expect the president to be graced by a sudden burst of modesty that might lead him, with appropriate apology, to ask the U.N. to take over the task of governing Iraq.
The issue is not the petty matter of whether the president knew or did not know that the supposed effort by Iraq to buy uranium from Niger was a fiction, much less whether he was, as he claims, “technically correct,” since he only claimed that the British had uncovered such information. The issue is a war misbegotten and mismanaged. Winston Churchill, prescient yet again. But this time it is our war, approved by the people we elected, opposed by many but denounced by few, and the buck does not stop with the president; it stops with us. It is our war — and our burdensome dilemma.
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).