Hoagland, Not Whacked


Perhaps there’s something wrong with me. But Jim Hoagland’s column in Friday’s Post seems remarkably lucid and well-reasoned. I’d quibble with a few points. There are a few others where I don’t know the details well enough to judge. But on the main outlines I think he’s got it right on the president’s speech comparing Iraq to America’s mid-20th century wars in Asia.

I was going to excerpt this or that portion. But there’s too much. It’s worth reading the whole thing — especially as a riposte to the farcical column by Charles Krauthammer, who argues that the stars are now aligned for a grand bargain, in which war critics confess to the military success of the surge and warmongers blame everything that has gone wrong on Mr. Maliki.

And another word on Mr. Maliki. Hoagland writes …

The need to protect the White House, the Pentagon and both major political parties from greater Iraq fallout explains much of the blame being dumped on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at this late date — even though his deficiencies and close links to Iran and Syria were clearly visible when the administration helped install him in the job in 2006.

That sounds about right, though I suspect the problem runs much deeper. There have been three post-war Iraqi Prime Ministers (though under different degrees of sovereignty and foreign rule): Allawi, Jafaari and Maliki. Do we really believe the problem here is Maliki? We’ve just got the wrong technocrat? The man lacks true leadership stature?

Judged from the outside at least it looks clear that the problem is the fractured nature of the Iraqi state, if you can even call it a state. No mystery here — all the basic divisions we hear about. And his government exists at the sufferance of factional leaders who see his generally impotent administration as a convenient holding pattern under which to secure or expand their own control over regions of the country or sectors of the population.

Along these lines let me give in and quote three of Hoagland’s paragraphs. By using his Vietnam analogy …

Bush has called attention to the elephant that will be sitting in the room when his administration makes its politically vital report on Iraq to the nation next month. For Americans, the most important comparison will be this one: As Vietnam did, Iraq has become a failure even on its own terms — whatever those terms are at any given moment.

That is, the administration has constantly shifted its goals in Iraq to avoid accepting failure and blame — only to see the new goals drift beyond reach each time. Liberation of Iraqis became occupation by Americans, democracy became an unattainable centralized “national unity” government and this year’s military surge has become a device for achieving political reconciliation among people who do not want to reconcile.

Bush’s appeal to Americans to turn away from “the allure of retreat” centered on the indisputably horrific consequences for the people of Vietnam and Cambodia of defeat in 1975. But his analogy also summons the historical reality that U.S. involvement in Indochina became untenable when that engagement itself became a threat to America’s social fabric and national cohesion — and then to the very institutions that had responsibility for the war, the U.S. military and intelligence services, as well as the presidency and Congress.

And here I think we get back to the root of the matter: We are bigger than Iraq.

By that I do not mean we, as America, are bigger or better than Iraq as a country. I mean that that sum of our national existence is not bound up in what happens there. The country will go on. Whatever happens, we’ll recover from it. And whatever might happen, there are things that matter much more to this country’s future — like whether we have a functioning military any more, whether our economy is wrecked, whether this country tears itself apart over this catastrophe. But we’ll go on and look back at this and judge what happened.

Not so for the president. For him, this is it. He’s not bigger than this. His entire legacy as president is bound up in Iraq. Which is another way of saying that his legacy is pretty clearly an irrecoverable shambles. That is why, as the folly of the enterprise becomes more clear, he must continually puff it up into more and more melodramatic and world-historical dimensions. A century long ideological struggle and the like. For the president a one in a thousand shot at some better outcome is well worth it, no matter what the cost. Because at least that’s a one in a thousand shot at not ending his presidency with the crushing verdict history now has in store. It’s also worth just letting things keep on going as they are forever because, like Micawber, something better might turn up. Going double or nothing by expanding the war into Iran might be worth it too for the same reason. For him, how can it get worse?

And when you boil all this down what it comes down to is that the president now has very different interests than the country he purports to lead.