The long war

August 20, 2006

Between Pearl Harbor and the capitulation of Nazi Germany there elapsed three years, five months and a day. That's how long Americans have now been fighting in Iraq, as of this morning.

What has been accomplished? Violence is escalating. The death rate of Iraqi civilians is escalating. Bomb attacks directed at U.S. soldiers are escalating. President Bush talks about being at war with "Islamic fascists" - a term that's not altogether wrong, though it packs more emotional than explanatory punch - but he seems to have little idea what to do about it in Iraq except to hang on and keep watch as the situation there continues to deteriorate.

Between 1941 and 1945, there was a clear idea about the nature of the fascist threat and a strategy for dealing with it. Allies were key. Between 2003 and 2006, the U.S. has heedlessly gone out of its way to provoke enemies where none had existed before. Deaf to advice, American strategists have been confused, self-deluded and self-defeating.

Here's just one example. When the war began on March 19, 2003, the press was filled with expectations, encouraged by the Bush administration, of an insurgency - an insurgency against Saddam Hussein that never developed. The first mention of "insurgents" who were shooting at Americans seems to have appeared in an article by an embedded Biloxi, Miss., Sun Herald reporter that ran March 25. That was less than a week into the invasion, but for well more than a year - or two - the White House believed in a version of events that had no room for a genuine and determined insurgency, and it has never quite caught up with reality.

Now Iraq is spiraling downward, and no one in Washington knows what to do. An effort this month to re-establish security in Baghdad with more American troops backing up Iraqi forces has been a fairly spectacular failure. Those who argue that a U.S. withdrawal now will be no worse than a U.S. withdrawal later are probably right - and it doesn't much matter whether you describe it as "cutting and running" or a "strategic redeployment" - but it's bound to be ugly whenever it happens. A lot more people are going to die when the U.S. leaves. The only question is when.

This month has seen the optimism fade in even the most gung-ho circles (outside the White House). Retired and serving officers are asking what the point is and what the goal is. For nearly three years the administration has been holding out for something better to happen in Iraq, but nothing better ever showed up, and that kind of coasting can't go on much longer. Iraq is headed for a crack-up, and it could reverberate throughout the Middle East. The president was reportedly shaken by the sight of 10,000 Iraqis marching in Baghdad in support of Hezbollah, denouncing the United States. He may go down in history as the Last Man to Know.

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