When I was a graduate student in the 1960s I was a student radical and member of SDS. At the school I was attending, the State University of New York at Buffalo, our local chapter had a typical experience. A group of students resisted the draft, holed up in a church to resist arrest and -- along with a few hundred other students -- fought the police when they arrived. Nine people were charged and put on trial. They became the "Buffalo Nine."
On the first day of the trial we all went down to demonstrate outside the courthouse. At one point, as the hundred-or-so students marched in a circle waving placards, they trapped a pair of old ladies next to the building. Instead of letting them pass, each student began waving his fist in the ladies' faces so that, within a few seconds, they were clearly terrified. I rushed in to usher them out and that was the end of it.
That evening, when we were back on campus planning the next day's activities, I stood up and gave a speech. I described the incident and said we were never going to win the hearts of the American people if we picked on old ladies. To my surprise, our leader, a frizzy-haired English major with a hippie girlfriend, stood up and denounced me. "I don't give a damn about old ladies," he said. "I'm for killing old ladies if it helps the Revolution."
I looked around the room, expecting to meet quizzical faces saying, "Is this guy crazy?" Instead, I found a hundred baleful pairs of eyes staring at me. I quickly realized I was in the wrong movement.
Everyone who has had some experience with leftist radical politics ends up with a similar experience. (See P.J. O'Rourke, whose adventures were much more interesting than mine.) You encounter people with an idee fixe -- a vision so pure and intense that they don't mind slaughtering a few people in order to achieve it.
I HATE TO SAY IT, BUT I'M STARTING to get the same feeling about the Bush Administration on Iraq. It started with a noble purpose, a noble goal and high ideals. But those goals don't match the reality. Rather than adjust, the President continues to pursue his noble ends -- even if it means slaughtering a few thousand more people in the process. As Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, wrote recently, the horrible thing about Iraq right now is that if you read all liberal criticisms of the past four years, you realize it is basically right.
We seem to have gone into Iraq for three idee-fixe reasons: 1) President Bush saw September 11th as a replay of the Gulf War and wanted to erase the legacy that his father made a mistake in not pushing to Baghdad; 2) neoconservative Jews (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, etc.) saw Saddam as a replay of the Holocaust and wanted to fight Iraq to correct the mistakes of World War II; and 3) die-hard conservatives (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Project for the New American Century) saw Iraq as a replay of Vietnam and wanted to prove that America could project its military might any time and anywhere we chose (just like Napoleon projecting his military into Russia or the Athenians into Syracuse).
Make no mistake, there was noble purpose behind the invasion and good reason for thinking it might succeed. The idea of creating a democratic, stable Iraq where Sunni and Shi'ia calmly sat down to resolve their differences in parliamentary fashion was certainly a grand vision. But it hasn't worked. There are too many nihilists in the region, too many jihad warriors willing to blow up themselves and the whole world for the greater good of Allah (an idee fixe if there ever was one). Saddam may have been a brutal murderer but he wasn't out of character with the civilization.
So what do we do now? President Bush has gamely vowed to "stay the course" -- and of course you can dredge up examples from Saigon to Munich to Thermopylae to illustrate that only those willing to fight to the last man ever win. But there comes a point when you have to look behind you and ask, "Is anybody following this parade?" Again I hate to say it, but about 80 percent of the American public is sick of this war -- including sizable portions of the military. They are ready to vote for anybody who gets us out of it. The Republicans just lost both Houses of Congress on the basis of Iraq and that's just the beginning. If things don't change fast, the very strong candidacies of John McCain, Rudy Giuliani. and Mitt Romney are going to be poisoned by association with this Administration. People who think Hillary Clinton or Barrack Obama are "unelectable" better think twice. If we're still losing half-a-dozen soldiers a day by 2008, even Jimmy Carter will be electable (remember, he is still eligible for one more term).
Instead of facing these realities, Bush and the neoconservatives are offering us word magic. We are going to have a "surge" of 30,000 troops into Baghdad. What is a "surge"? Is it good money after bad? Is it lambs to the slaughter? The military estimates were 250,000 troops needed to secure the country, rather than the 130,000 designated by Rumsfeld. The Shi'ia armed militia now number 60,000 -- and that's before any recruiting campaign spurred by a new American mini-invasion. A "surge of troops" means that 30,000 more American soldiers are going to be in firefights with both Sunni and Shi'ite death squads on their home territory.
Over at the American Enterprise Institute, Frederick Kagan offers another bit of word magic -- "Choose Victory." Get it? It's not that we're fighting a real enemy who may have his own choices. Victory is in our hands. All we have to do is "choose." Of course, "victory" may mean patrolling the streets of Baghdad for another 25 years -- maybe even building a wall between Sunnis and Shi'ia -- but at least we will have "chosen." Michael Goodwin of the New York Daily News, another reliable neoconservative, is much more frank. He says we're in a hundred-year War on Terror, we should reinstate the draft, double the military, and hunker down for a century of conflict. At least he's being candid.
SO WHAT SHOULD WE DO? I think it's time we stepped back and tried to re-evaluate our situation.
September 11th was an historic tragedy but it was also a lucky, sucker punch. We haven't been hit since and it's not because we invaded Iraq. It's because we invaded Afghanistan, tightened up on security, and cracked down on sponsor states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The British are more vulnerable and are doing just as good a job by putting a full-court press on domestic infiltrators. Thus, liberals are right in calling terror a "crime" problem. Unfortunately, they are the last people in the world willing to fight crime (see "spying on Americans," etc.).
As for longer-term goals in the region, sure it would be nice if Islam were peaceful and democratic, but it ain't gonna happen. What we've walked into is a 1400-year-old civil war.
The Middle East is a cauldron of ethnic hatreds spurred by a religion that is fundamentally a prescription for conquest. Every state in the region has either a Sunni majority ruling over a fractious Shi'ite minority or an uneasy Sunni minority suppressing a rebellious Shi'ite majority -- except for Iran, of course, where the Shi'ia rule outright. The only thing that ever unites these two factions is hatred for Israel, America, and the West. As the Palestinian experience has shown, even without the Sunni-Shi'ia rivalry, factionalism in Islam quickly degenerated into open warfare.
What should be our strategy? Three weeks ago I suggested that President Bush emulate Richard Nixon and pull some surprise diplomatic initiative to reverse the momentum. Nixon rescued our growing quagmire in Vietnam by opening relations with China and turning the entire Communist world upside down. Instead of facing two totalitarian allies, we were suddenly in a diplomatic triad with Russia and China. China became free to modernize while President Reagan was able to isolate the Soviet Union, bringing it to collapse.
In order to reverse the present quagmire, the President should open an all-parties conclave -- including Syria, Iran, Egypt and everyone else -- to resolve the future of the region. Such an effort would accomplish several things: 1) it would put every Middle Eastern potentate in the spotlight, where they might learn to behave themselves; 2) it would bring the rest of the world in on our side, since everybody wants an end to Middle Eastern warfare; 3) it would teach Islamic factions something about negotiating and the non-violent pursuit of objectives; and 4) it would enhance Israel's security since ultimately one side or the other, Sunni or Shi'ite, is going to see Israel as a potential ally.
President Bush has about a year to pull off this kind of unexpected diplomatic initiative. Otherwise there is going to be an even more forceful rejection of Republicans in 2008. The Democrats will be running the country. And you know what that means.
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