Wednesday, November 16, 2005

There's No Success Like Failure

The smallest American defeat we can attain in Iraq begins tomorrow. The longer we wait to declare defeat and leave, the worse it gets.

It will be a defeat that is 187 times worse if we declare it a year from tomorrow. It will be 25,464 times worse if we declare it in two years. (This is a fanciful rather than a proper geometric progression, but then neither, on this particular subject anyway, is the Pentagon any good at forecasting.)

In the current instance of the projection of American military power in Iraq, it is already inevitably, irretrievably, unmistakably, irreversibly, wholly, completely and totally a defeat, and nothing else, which is not even upcoming but has already transpired. Why? Because a political defeat is always a military defeat, however well and nobly the soldiery fought.

There was a ferocious and appalling argument among progressives during Vietnam, even prior to the late 1969 conversion to the antiwar camp of the Washington Post and the New York Times editorial pages from supine, if lethargic, supporters of the war. This divide was sold, or reported, at the time as a confrontation between the realists and the idealists.

In 1968 the contrasting progressive positions were that of Senators Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern (and labor) versus that of Senator Eugene J. McCarthy and the Rev. Martin Luther King (and the universities and churches.) Kennedy and McGovern "realistically" thought the war was still winnable though mistaken. McCarthy and King "idealistically" said that it was immoral from the beginning, even if winnable -- but also not winnable.

Under televised conditions, empires don’t defeat guerillas. Excruciatingly learned by the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and by the Americans in Vietnam and now Iraq, that’s about as firm a reality-based rule, or observation, as that of the Book of Job 5:7, “Mankind is born to have trouble, in just the same way that sparks fly upward.” You can argue all you want that it shouldn’t be that way, or that sometimes it doesn’t have to be that way, or that you can construct conditions under which it is not that way, but the fact remains, statistically that’s the way it almost always is.

In Iraq as in the earlier struggle in Vietnam, the alleged idealists have all the solid facts, while the alleged realists have all the airy theories.

A harsh and inexorable Spanish proverb has it that “War begets poverty; poverty, peace.” This used to be the result of an intractable, frustrating material problem. When invading armies lived off the land, by the time you had enough troops to occupy the place successfully, what with the defeated army you had more mouths to feed than the peasantry could support. When food got scarce and scanty, the allegedly victorious armies had to move on, singing songs of praise to the Deity at hand as if successful, but eating better upon their return to home base --unless they stayed and became the government, always another indigestible handful of nettles.

Air and sealift logistics have supposedly removed material constraints on warfare; US forces can conduct invasions in lands the most inhospitable, at distances the most unimaginable, for periods far exceeding the abilities of local economies to support them. Yet since the Clausewitzian axiom has yet to be repealed, even a spectacular military victory that is unsubstantiated, unaccompanied, unsupported, and unimplemented by diplomatic and political success afterward is not a military victory within the meaning of the act.

It is just such a non-triumph that we have achieved, are achieving, and will continue to achieve in Iraq. No matter how many US war aims are scaled back, troops reinforced and resupplied, and diplomatic and constitutional initiatives pursued, the conditions precedent to victory were destroyed by the very act of our going to war in that sad and maltreated land. An Arab populace, no matter how divided, is never going to accept a government or system that appears to have been imposed by an American invasion, no matter how often it is asserted to have been so altruistically.

Again as in Vietnam, up until very recently most of the Congress has cheerfully been completely irrelevant to the necessary public discussion of how soon to end the war. Almost all the real activity is taking place outside our elected institutions, which have failed. Again a blinded and headstrong Presidency is the culprit, and short of the forthcoming compulsion of humiliation, cannot allow itself to be part of the solution at all.

In his 1964 speech nominating Senator Hubert Humphrey for Vice President in Atlantic City, McCarthy excoriated Republican Presidential nominee Senator Barry Goldwater for living in a world in which “the clocks have no hands, the glasses have no lenses, and the pale horse of death and destruction is indistinguishable from the white horse of victory.” That is the world which the Republican and Democratic supporters of the Iraqi war stubbornly, if unsuccessfully, persist in inhabiting.

Failure is no dishonor; persistence in it is.

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