Once upon a time, we used to expect our Presidents to have some idea what they were talking about. Once upon a time, when a President said something completely ludicrous, people were shocked and worried. For instance, when Gerald Ford said that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration", no one just chuckled and thought: ha ha ha, isn't that funny. They had the quaint, old-fashioned idea that our country's leader ought to know better.
Under George W. Bush, of course, we have come to expect much less. He is, after all, the same President who told Vladimir Putin that Russia should model itself on Iraq, and who told us that "when I was going to college, I never dreamed that the United States of America could be attacked," even though he went to college at the height of the Cold War, when large numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads were pointed straight at our cities. After enough statements like that, it's easy to become blasé about these things. Easy, but wrong. We should never allow ourselves to get used to the idea that our President, the man who commands our armed forces and deploys our diplomats, has absolutely no idea what he's talking about.
That's why it's worth dwelling on the speech he gave yesterday. It was an absolutely appalling mishmash of error, illogic, and slander. Admittedly, it's a little hard to get your hands around: as Josh Marshall said, "To get a grasp on an argument, to support it or take it apart, requires that it have some grounding in reality or actual fact." Bush's speech had no such grounding: it was a sort of free-floating fantasy whose only discernible connection to the actual world was in its lethal effects. Still, it's worth trying to understand. I do my best below the fold.
Bush's main argument is as follows: during the last century, we fought a number of wars that had the following features: they were fought to prevent an enemy from imposing an alien ideology on the world; many people doubted that they could succeed; and they required a lengthy commitment and a lot of sacrifice. In two cases (against Japan and North Korea) we prevailed, and the result is that those countries are prosperous democracies. In one case (Vietnam) we lost our will and left the field, and the result was massive loss of life. We now face a choice about which course to choose in Iraq: to fight towards victory, as we did in Japan and Korea, or to retreat, as we did in Vietnam. "The question now that comes before us is this: Will today's generation of Americans resist the allure of retreat, and will we do in the Middle East what the veterans in this room did in Asia?" And to Bush, the answer is clear
"So long as we remain true to our ideals, we will defeat the extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will help those countries' peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East. And when that hard work is done and the critics of today recede from memory, the cause of freedom will be stronger, a vital region will be brighter, and the American people will be safer."
Before getting to the details, let's consider the overarching premiss: that the choice we now face is whether to keep fighting and ultimately prevail, or to withdraw and abandon the Iraqis to their fate. As I see it, this premiss is completely false. If we keep fighting, there is no reason whatsoever to think that we will "prevail", and every reason to think that we will simply sacrifice a lot of American and Iraqi lives for nothing. If we withdraw, we will abandon the Iraqis to their fate, and that is a horrible thing. But a lot turns on whether you think that there is anything we can do to avoid the bloodshed that will follow our withdrawal. I do not think that there is. If I'm right, then unless we are prepared to remain in Iraq until the end of time, we will, at some point, have to leave, and that bloodshed will probably follow.
If staying in Iraq will not lead us to "victory", but will only postpone the consequences of our withdrawing at a terrible cost both to us and to the Iraqis, then the decision before us looks very, very different. But Bush does not stop to consider this possibility. He frames the question in a way that ensures that the only possible answer is the one that he wants, and then, surprise, he gets it.
But Bush's fundamental assumption about the nature of our choice is not just false; it's a profound evasion of his own responsibility. I think it would have been very difficult to create a functioning, legitimate government in Iraq, difficult enough to make invading a bad idea even without all the other reasons to oppose it. However, I also think that success was not impossible. That it is impossible now is largely this administration's doing. They never, ever appreciated the magnitude of the task they had taken upon themselves, the care and concentration and resources that it would require, or the consequences of getting it wrong. They dismissed the plans of others, and forbade their own people to plan. They allowed an insurgency to develop and to arm itself from stores of weapons that they never bothered to secure. They did not send in enough troops to ensure basic security to the people of Iraq, and ridiculed those who suggested that this might cause problems down the line. They made catastrophic decisions -- disbanding the Iraqi army that our soldiers are now risking their lives trying to reconstitute, imposing a de-Baathification regime that the Iraqi parliament is now trying and failing to undo -- and they made them in a careless, thoughtless way that still takes my breath away.
And now, when all this carelessness and stupidity is having its inevitable effect, Bush pretends it doesn't exist. The only way we can fail, he says, is if the American people and their representatives withdraw their support -- ignoring completely his own role in making failure inevitable. And he adds that if we withdraw our support, that will constitute a failure of will and an abandonment of the Iraqi people -- ignoring completely both the extent to which his administration abandoned them from the outset, and the extent to which Americans' support of withdrawal reflects a loss of confidence in his administration and its basic competence.
Suppose that a President invaded another country, and adopted the unusual tactic of sending our troops in unarmed and unprotected, one platoon at a time, holding signs that said: We want to take over your country! Please surrender! And suppose that, unsurprisingly, the result of this was that those troops were all killed, one after the other. Suppose that the President was urged to adopt a different strategy, but refused, on the grounds that admitting mistakes would give comfort to our enemies; and that when some people began to mutter: not as much comfort as making those mistakes in the first place, he accused them of being defeatists. Finally, suppose that after several thousand troops had been killed in this way, the American people stopped supporting this President and his war. It would be beyond galling for the President to lecture them on their lack of will, or their insufficient concern for the people of the invaded country, when the reason for their lack of support was that his own idiocy had made any good outcome impossible.
I don't see any difference between that case and this one, except that the Iraqi people would have been a lot better off if the President had used my imaginary tactics. And that's why I find being lectured about my lack of will by this President laughable. There was a genuine failure of will when it came to Iraq, and while success was unlikely in any case, this failure made it impossible. But, as I have argued elsewhere, it was not our failure. It was Bush's.
I had planned to discuss Bush's remarks on Japan and Korea, but on reflection I'll just say this: Bush spends a lot of time quoting people who said that the Japanese were incapable of democracy, and that our policy in Japan was therefore doomed. Those people were wrong. Similarly, supporters of the war sometimes accuse those of us who oppose it of believing that Iraqis or Arabs are incapable of democracy, and while I have never actually encountered anyone who believes this, I'm sure someone, somewhere does. And I believe that that person is wrong as well. But to think that this has anything at all to do with whether we should stay in Iraq is absurd: it's the same kind of reasoning that leads untalented would-be musicians to draw comfort from the fact that they laughed at Stravinsky too.
Instead, I'll just focus on a few points that have been discussed elsewhere. First, there's this:
"In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called, "The Quiet American." It was set in Saigon, and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism -- and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."
After America entered the Vietnam War, the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. As a matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people. (...) The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be."
Alden Pyle? Alden Pyle??? For those of you who haven't read The Quiet American, Alden Pyle is a CIA agent who arrives in Vietnam, a country he does not begin to understand, armed with the power of the United States government and a wholly unjustified faith in his own ability to understand and direct events, a faith that would be touching if its results were not so lethal. He intervenes in Vietnamese politics, and unleashes a bloody civil war. Question: who does this remind you of? There are a lot of possible answers: in the war in Vietnam, MacNamara; in the war in Iraq, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, or Bush himself (though I think that in the case of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, comparisons to Alden Pyle do them altogether too much credit: Pyle, at least, had good intentions, whereas Cheney and Rumsfeld's intentions were not good, and I do not think Bush rises to the level of having had any clear intentions at all.) But "people who oppose the wars in Vietnam or Iraq" are not among them.
For Bush to compare opponents of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq to Alden Pyle is like King Leopold of Belgium countering criticism of his genocidal policies in the Congo, which resulted in the deaths of millions, by comparing his critics to Captain Kurtz from Heart of Darkness; or like a pedophile defending himself by comparing his critics to Humbert Humbert. It's downright surreal.
Then there's Bush's invocation of Vietnam and Cambodia:
"In 1972, one antiwar senator put it this way: "What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they've never seen and may never heard of?" A columnist for The New York Times wrote in a similar vein in 1975, just as Cambodia and Vietnam were falling to the communists: "It's difficult to imagine," he said, "how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." A headline on that story, date Phnom Penh, summed up the argument: "Indochina without Americans: For Most a Better Life."
The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.
Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. There's no debate in my mind that the veterans from Vietnam deserve the high praise of the United States of America. (Applause.) Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like "boat people," "re-education camps," and "killing fields.""
If terms like "boat people", "re-education camps," and "killing fields" entered our lexicon because of our withdrawal from Vietnam, it's news to me. I had always thought that the first two might or might not have entered our vocabulary had we never entered the war at all, but would certainly not have been prevented by our staying in it for any period of time short of eternity, while the third would not have entered our vocabulary at all had we not decided to invade Cambodia and replace its ruler. Our withdrawal per se had nothing to do with any of these.
It is also worth noting other additions to our vocabulary: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it", "My Lai", "the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner," body count, defoliation, napalm, gook, Phoenix Program, "peace is at hand", "Christmas bombing". Over 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese died while our vocabulary grew in this way.
Historians' takes on President Bush's speech: Robert Dallek:
"Historian Robert Dallek, who has written about the comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history. "It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president," he said in a telephone interview.
"We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will," he said.
"What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion," he continued. "We've been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II. It's a disaster, and this is a political attempt to lay the blame for the disaster on his opponents. But the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out.""
"The Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the absence of the war in Vietnam — this dark force arose out of the circumstances of the war, was in a deep sense created by the war. The same thing has happened in the Middle East today. Foreign occupation of Iraq has created far more terrorists than it has deterred.”"
"The comparison of Iraq to Germany and Japan “is fanciful,” said Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He noted that the American and allied militaries had eliminated the governments of Japan and Germany, and any lingering opposition, and assembled occupation forces that were, proportionally, more than three times as large as the current American presence of more than 160,000 troops in Iraq.
“That’s the kind of troop level you need to control the situation,” Mr. Simon said. “The occupation of Germany and Japan lasted for years — and not a single American solider was killed by insurgents.”
Senior American military officers speaking privately also say that the essential elements that brought victory in World War II — a total commitment by the American people and the government, and a staggering economic commitment to rebuild defeated adversaries — do not exist for the Iraq war. The wars in Korea and Vietnam also involved considerable national sacrifice, including tax increases and conscription."
"Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow said Bush is reaching for historical analogies that don't track. He said, "Vietnam was not a bunch of sectarian groups fighting each other," as in Iraq. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge toppled a U.S.-backed government.
"Does he think we should have stayed in Vietnam?" Karnow asked."
Finally, there's this little gem from the President's speech:
"Our troops are seeing this progress that is being made on the ground. And as they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they're gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq? Here's my answer is clear: We'll support our troops, we'll support our commanders, and we will give them everything they need to succeed. "
That's right: when I oppose President Bush's plans for Iraq, it's not the President I disagree with: it's the troops. The President somehow knows, using the special telepathic powers that being President affords, exactly what the troops think. All of them. He knows that "they have a question", and he knows exactly what it is. And he -- the President who sent in too few troops and never insisted on a plan for the occupation, the President whose administration left huge stocks of high explosives unguarded for insurgents to loot, so that they could make as many IEDs as they wanted to use against our troops, the President whose Secretary of Defense blamed "the army we have", rather than his own incompetence, for the fact that our soldiers were scrambling around looking for scrap metal to armor their Humvees with -- this President has the gall to say that those of us who oppose the war want to deny the troops what they need.
If he had any shame, he'd be hiding under a table right now, wishing the earth would swallow him.
Andrew Sullivan is right:
"To place all the troops into the position of favoring one strategy ahead of us rather than another, and to accuse political opponents of trying to "pull the rug out from under them," is a, yes, fascistic tactic designed to corral political debate into only one possible patriotic course. It's beneath a president to adopt this role, beneath him to coopt the armed services for partisan purposes. It should be possible for a president to make an impassioned case for continuing his own policy in Iraq, without accusing his critics of wanting to attack and betray the troops. But that would require class and confidence. The president has neither."