Andrew J. Bacevich is a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran with 23 years of service in the U.S. Army. Today he is a professor of international relations at Boston University, and he has an op ed in today’s Los Angeles Times. He says there is no point asking presidential candidates about their plan for Iraq, because Iraq is irretrievably screwed.
Recall that Bush saw Baghdad not as the final destination of his global war on terror but as a point of departure. He imagined that liberating Iraq might trigger a flowering of Arab democracy. He was counting on Saddam Hussein’s ouster to jump-start a regional transformation. He expected a forthright demonstration of U.S. military might to enhance America’s standing across the Muslim world, with friend and foe alike thereafter deferring to Washington.
None of that has come to pass. Baghdad has become a cul-de-sac. Having plunged into a war he cannot win, Bush will not relent. Iraq consumes his presidency because the president wills that it should. He has become Captain Ahab: His identification with his war is absolute.
As a consequence, the “global” effort aimed at eliminating Islamic terror, launched back in September 2001, has narrowed in scope. Today the global war is global in name only. In reality, it has become a war for Mesopotamia.
For his part, the president increasingly preoccupies himself with tactics at the expense of statecraft. Much as Lyndon Johnson once reviewed lists of targets to be bombed in Hanoi, Bush now ponders how many brigades will be needed to impose order on a handful of neighborhoods around Baghdad.
Ritualistic allusions to freedom as the antidote to terrorism still occasionally crop up in presidential speeches, but rhetoric no longer translates into action. An administration that once touted its expansive and principled approach to preventing another 9/11 has abandoned principle. Now there is only Iraq and the effort to ensure that today’s news out of Baghdad isn’t any worse than yesterday’s.
Our political attention, then, needs to turn to whether the president’s would-be successors can do what Bush cannot: acknowledge our failure in Iraq and look beyond it.
First, I cringe every time Bush or some other politician says that “commanders on the ground” in Iraq must not have their “hands tied” by “artificial timetables” or other such “constraints.” The fact is that the commanders have their hands tied now by Bush’s determination to stay in Iraq as long as he’s president. The Dems’ timetables are no more a “constraint” than Bush’s stubbornness. It is not up to the generals “on the ground” to decide whether to stay or to go or what their mission is or what grand strategy their efforts are serving. That’s primarily the President’s job, yet he won’t do that job.
The generals are charged with the job of carrying out the mission they’ve been given, whatever it is. They don’t have the authority to say “this is a stupid mission” or “we really shouldn’t be here.” Even assuming the current crew of officers are good at their jobs, there’s not a whole lot they can do except make the best of a bad situation; try to do some good, try to achieve some tactical successes, guard flaming idiot senators who want to be filmed strolling through a Baghdad market. The decisions that need to be made are not up to them to make.
On the other hand — I think someday when the smoke clears we might find out that Bush, Cheney et al. have been micromanaging the war a whole lot more than they pretend to; probably increasingly so as time has gone on. And a whole lot of those “generals on the ground” will be writing books about Bush being a bleeping idiot who tied their hands every time they turned around. I have no proof of that; just intuition and long observation of human nature. People as driven as Bush and Cheney to make the war “work” are not going to be able to sit on their hands and let other people handle the job.
Finally, I think we have reached the “talking to the portraits” phase of the Bush II presidency. Frank Rich thought we had reached it last December, and he may have been right, but now it’s pretty certain.