“The people of England, have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information . . . Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster . . .”
T. E. Lawrence, 1920
That was then; this is now. Get the difference?
You're right -- there isn't any, except that we don't call it Mesopotamia anymore, and it isn't our “imperial record” that's been disgraced -- it's our indispensable, hard-earned, priceless international credibility that's been sullied, not to mention a sizable quotient of “domestic tranquility.”
After three years and as many months, an almost unimaginable outlay of the financial resources, the loss of lives, limbs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of Americans, Iraqis, and others, we are finally there.
We are not “between Iraq and a hard place” anymore; we are in a place that's simply “too hard.”
Thanks to the scholarship of Army Major Joel Rayburn (to whom I'm indebted for the T. E. Lawrence quote) in an important and disturbing essay in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs -- The Last Exit from Iraq -- we also understand that we are not the first nation to be there -- a lamentable example of history actually repeating itself.
So the question for today is this: What are we to do?
No matter whether you believe that the Bush Administration made a hash of it in Iraq -- our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows -- or whether you presume that nothing could have prevented the combination of insurgency, sectarian violence, and street crime, the awful moment of reckoning is upon us.
The litany of mismanagement and misdemeanors may be old news to many Americans, but not to Iraqis or their neighbors. Nor with our allies and countless others, too many of whom now see America as the principal force for disorder in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It doesn't matter that American forces rid Iraq and the Middle East of Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarkawi. Nor does it matter that they have come to the aid of Muslims on many occasions in other parts of the world. It doesn't count that we have been the force for good during tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods. And it certainly doesn't matter that we see ourselves as good angels in a world beset by disaster, evil and tragedy.
That's not news; that's expected of us.
It's what's not expected of us -- a mostly great country and a mostly great people -- that makes news and enemies.
Whether we comprehend this phenomenon or not, America is Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the Green Zone, Haditha and, undoubtedly, more to come.
While we have not yet begun to sort out the facts at Haditha, the early indications are that it will be a sordid story of the intersection of IED's and IED, when improvised explosive devices met the medical condition known as intermittent explosive disorder. And the all-too-familiar story of cover-up by the higher-ups.
When soldiers or Marines who have been in combat for too long -- who are forced to play an insidious game of Iraqi roulette by coming back for second and third tours of duty, who understand that they must deal daily with villagers who will be beheaded if they warn American protectors of hidden incendiary devices -- are pushed to limits that would break most mortals, the results are bound to be tragic.
Haditha may not be the culture of the Marine Corps; it may go against the grain of everything the Corps believes in and trains for; and Haditha and Abu Ghraib may not be the picture America holds of itself. But it is a picture held by tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions elsewhere around the world.
The “ugly American” has been around for a long time, in fiction and in fact. It goes with the territory, and “public diplomacy” won't fix that problem. As former Under Secretary of State, George Ball, once observed: “The world will see us as no better than we are.”
But back to the central question: What are we to do?
First, be grateful for two welcome developments this week: that Abu Musab al-Zarkawi is history; and that Iraqi's appear to be on the verge of forming a unity government that just might -- M - I - G - H - T -- hold.
The former is an important, well-deserved short-term morale booster, although not apt to significantly affect the level of in-country violence; while the latter could -- C-O-U-L-D -- turn out to be the single most important long-term development for Iraq.
Second, despite these positive circumstances, Americans must retool their mental machinery to accept the reality on the ground: Iraq is a violent place. This isn't a figment of the media's imagination; it isn't apt to change soon; and it doesn't matter by which name it goes -- civil unrest, sectarian violence, brink of civil war, or civil war. Iraq is a violent, dangerous place.
Third, it's important to understand that the duration and form of our presence in Iraq is now mostly a matter of Iraqi determination, not American. We have the right to leave if we choose, the right to stay if asked. That's pretty much it.
Fourth, remove Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. If the President won't do it, the Congress ought to create a bipartisan special committee -- like the Senate Watergate Committee chaired by Sam Ervin -- to investigate the many questions about malfeasance and misdemeanors in this war at Rumsfeld's direction, and to move ahead to impeachment if warranted.
That alone would send an important signal around the world -- and at home -- about America's capacity to admit error and engage in self-correction. This would be public diplomacy at its best.
Fifth, prepare for the worst, and hope to be wrong -- a 180º policy shift from the days when Donald Rumsfeld was in control of Iraq strategy. And understand that there are no good options remaining: as Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said last fall: “Some problems are from hell, and there comes a time when you have to choose.”
Nevertheless, instead of engaging in unhelpful rhetorical political combat, the Administration must engage in concentrated, high-level scenario planning with the country's best military planners and policy experts. Given the stark vulnerability of our fighting forces to a disaster that could dwarf Mogadishu 1993, the imperative is clear.
As former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, Cochairman of the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, wrote recently in a Boston Globe editorial:
“If sectarian violence escalates further, US troops must be withdrawn from patrol and confined to their barracks and garrisons. Mass transport must be mustered for rapid withdrawal of those troops from volatile cities in the explosive central region of Iraq. Intensive diplomatic efforts must be focused on preventing an Iraqi civil war from spreading to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria . . .
“But the first concern must be the safety of US forces. It is strange to contemplate the possibility that the greatest army in world history could be slaughtered in a Middle East conflagration. But prudent commanders have no choice but to plan for this danger.”
At the same time, one would hope that Iraqis would engage in a series of national and provincial strategic scenario planning exercises -- to provide citizens with a clear sense of the challenges and sacrifices that lie ahead, their role in that process, and the degree to which they will need outside resources to help reach their goals. It would be a collaborative, democratic process at a time when it could do the most good.
The choices now belong to them: Whether U.S. troops stay for a year or a decade. How they will manage the paradoxical, tantalizing, and potentially lethal combination of their newfound freedoms and their ancient hatreds
And finally, it would be good to see some thoughtful action in the bullpen of the first branch of government -- aka, The Broken Branch, as policy scholars Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Orenstein of the American Enterprise Institute call it in their forthcoming book on the collapse of Congress.
This may be George Bush's war, but it isn't George Bush's country. And it's up to the Congress to remind him and themselves of that critical distinction.
And as Americans think about their role between now and the November midterm elections, here are Major Joel Rayburn's concluding thoughts on our choices:
“Washington thus now finds itself facing roughly the same question that London faced between 1925 and 1927: should it leave Iraq, or continue until its project there has truly fulfilled its aims?
“. . . the Conservative government succumbed to the political and media pressure to pull out . . . To avoid a similar result today, the U.S. government and its allies must confront what the United Kingdom's premature withdrawal achieved: namely a disaster both for Iraq and for its occupier. Having left the work of the mandate undone, the British were forced to return and attempt to finish the job nine misery-filled years later. The U. S. can ill afford to do the same.”
In the final analysis, it's up to the people who elect the first branch and the second branch to make this decision about Iraq. And there's no time like the present.
So, what do you think?