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Liberating Ourselves

The Bush administration originally sold the Iraq War to the public, Congress, and the world with two propaganda packages appealing respectively to fear and hope. One drew a horrifying picture of The Disastrous Consequences of Inaction in Iraq; the other depicted The Bright Promise of Victory in Iraq. Everyone remembers the absurd predictions, false promises, and outright lies these packages contained.

Today both have been totally discredited by events. The president, administration officials, and loyal supporters in the Congress and media spin the ongoing disaster in Iraq and looming one in Iran as signs of coming victory, but only true believers are convinced. With rebellion rising even among Republicans and control of Congress in jeopardy, the president is touring the country with a series of speeches designed to refurbish the old propaganda of fear. This newest package, The Disastrous Consequences of Failure in Iraq, seeks to terrify the public, mobilize the base, and vilify the opposition by portraying worse disasters sure to arise should cowardly, cut-and-run Democrats cause America to fail.

It should be easy for opponents of the war to refute this fear-mongering campaign with The Disastrous Consequences of Staying the Course. Though any such exertion comes hard to a divided party with its so-called moderates pulling in the opposite direction, the evidence showing the current campaign to be as illegitimate and self-deluding as the original pro-war campaign is overwhelming. But such a counterattack, though necessary, will not defeat the White House’s strategy by itself and could even play into its hands.

The reasons are simple. Like other Bush-Cheney ploys, this one is not designed to educate or persuade rationally but to arouse and exploit patriotic emotion. Any counterargument, however solidly grounded in logic and evidence, will be politically and emotionally distasteful to many voters. Moreover, Americans want not merely to be warned of impending disaster but also to be told how it can be averted. To Republican true believers, “Stay the course” still represents the answer, simplistic and delusional though it is, while the majority skeptical about this answer demand something positive in its place.

The Republican electoral strategy thus rests on two pillars: on Bush’s reported private quip during the 2004 campaign, “You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you have to concentrate on,” while keeping the rest distracted, divided, and on the defensive; and on the opposition party’s tearing itself apart trying to devise a positive alternative policy, with some leaders, including Hillary Clinton, still endorsing John Kerry’s message in 2004, The Bright Promise of Letting Us Handle Iraq Better. This approach, now even more than in 2004, will divide the Democrats, confuse the public, and fail to rally supporters. Worse still, it would continue to obscure the central point and the first critical requirement for any solution in Iraq or progress toward one: that the current American venture has decisively failed, cannot be rescued or reformed, and must be abandoned.

This essay proposes an answer to this problem—not to the tactical electoral dilemma faced by the Democratic Party but to the policy dilemma faced by the country, an answer not offered by either party and almost certain to be denounced and repudiated by both. By frankly acknowledging failure in Iraq and acting quickly, decisively, and prudently on that recognition, the U.S. not only could avoid further disasters there but might also achieve a kind of success. Call it The Bright Promise of Accepting Failure in Iraq.

Be warned: the success to be described bears no resemblance to the glowing predictions made by neoconservative hawks before the war. Participating in their game of false promises and self-delusion would mean violating the most critical requirement for any ultimate success for American policy in Iraq and elsewhere—that Americans get over their habit of spreading and believing comforting lies. The main weapon for opponents of this war and this policy must be ruthless honesty, and the great strength of that weapon now is that the war’s proponents cannot use it. Therefore I begin by admitting, indeed insisting, that the light that could be kindled by accepting failure in Iraq resembles a flashlight with limited battery life rather than a locomotive headlight. But like a flashlight in a dark cave, it may be bright enough to show the way out.

It is idle to discuss the administration’s refusal to recognize failure in Iraq and its insistence on the goal of victory as if this represented a serious military strategy or foreign-policy plan. “Victory” is not really defined and cannot be. Virtually all the concrete goals of the original Bright Promise of Victory in Iraq propaganda have already been tacitly abandoned and are no longer mentioned. The “success” talked about is not merely indefinable and unattainable but incoherent as a concept. The ends sought are self-contradictory and incompatible with the means used to attain them. All this could be demonstrated at length, accomplishing nothing but to further the administration’s purposes of distraction and obfuscation. For the denial of failure and insistence on pursuing victory, insofar as it is a product of something more than pure fantasy, is not designed for military and foreign-policy purposes but for domestic politics, especially the 2006 elections. There the strategy could succeed by limiting the Republican losses just enough to keep control of both houses, avoid the congressional investigations the administration dreads, and delay the final collapse in Iraq until after 2008, when the presumably victorious Democrats could be blamed for it.

The possibility of such a success rests on more than Rovian electoral wizardry. It exploits roots deep in the American heritage and character—the special difficulty many Americans have in coming to terms with limits in international politics, the feeling that admitting failure and wrong choices especially in wartime is un-American. Add to this the portrait the administration and a largely compliant press paint of what failure in Iraq would bring—civil war, chaos and radical Islam dominating the region, terrorism triumphant, Iran emboldened, Israel threatened, the oil supply imperiled or cut off, America humiliated, isolated, and impotent, and (the most dishonest but politically effective claim of all) the brave Americans killed or wounded in the fight for Iraqi freedom and American security betrayed. Against this lurid background Bush & Co. challenge the Democrats: if you are serious, show us your plan for meeting these dangers, solving these problems, and avoiding these disasters while getting us out of Iraq.

It is easy to show how absurd in logic and fact this demand is. It is like insisting that a man who shows you that your $100 bill is counterfeit owes you a real one, or—to use Molly Ivins’s illustration—to argue that those who warned against hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick must now, after the administration has done so and caused the hornets to swarm and attack everywhere, either propose a concrete plan for getting the hornets back into the nest or else join in efforts to kill them with the stick. Worst of all, the demand calls on others to solve the problem the Bush administration created while rejecting the fundamental condition for any solution, a recognition that wrong policy and failed leadership created the problem and that both must first be changed.

Yet outrageous as this tactic is, it may still work with many voters because making failure in war acceptable to Americans is like putting lipstick on a pig. That is the ungrateful task of this essay, and it requires a series of steps. First, I must show that the option of trying for success through acknowledging failure is the only rational chance to avoid further failure and worse disaster. Then that option must be made plausible and meaningful—plausible by seeing that this often happens in history as in ordinary life and meaningful through redefining and better understanding the nature of the contest and the meaning of victory or success.

The argument starts with two generalizations from history, obvious and familiar but often ignored. The first, that the worst disasters in history arise from a refusal to recognize and admit failure and deal with it, needs no proof. History is full of striking instances. Here is just one: the causes and factors that drove Germany deliberately to launch World War II and inflict unspeakable crimes on the world and on Germany itself were diverse and complicated, but one was basic—a refusal to admit that Germany had really lost World War I and must accept the consequences of defeat. Essentially, the German decision for war in 1939 was a decision to stay the course —to resume in a radical new form the effort of 1914-18 to make Germany dominant in Europe through military power. Similar instances from history could be cited almost ad infinitum.

The second generalization is also easy to document from history. Often—not always—a timely recognition of failure and the willingness to abandon or alter a wrong course leads in unexpected ways to success. Sometimes the change in course enables one to achieve the original aims by a different route; more often it leads to the discovery that the original goals were not that great or cost too much and that the country was actually better off with a different outcome—that sometimes one could win by losing.

American parochialism and the privileged, triumphant course of American history make this point hard for Americans to grasp. Yet in at least four major instances during the Cold War, the U.S. had to come to terms with failure, accept the consequences, and change course, sometimes by 180 degrees: Korea and the Korean War, China and the recognition of the Communist regime, Vietnam, and strategic parity with the USSR. In every case, accepting failure served to avoid further losses and potential disasters and led to an outcome different from what the U.S. was originally trying to achieve, but better. America would be worse off now had it won any of those contests in the way it originally tried to.

There is no mystery about why this happened to the United States as it has many times to other countries. A timely recognition of failure helps cut losses, stop rot, and cease wasting vital resources. It magnifies contradictions between goals and misfits between means and ends, helps us better understand the reasons for failure, and changes views of what outcomes may be acceptable. By admitting that one cannot solve the problem with the resources and methods one has, one may discover or create new, useful ones. Stop swimming upstream, and the current may carry you somewhere safe, if not to your original destination. Acknowledging that the problem is beyond your capacities may get you help—old or new allies and partners with common interests who cannot afford to let you entirely fail. A recognition that the way you are fighting the battle is making things worse may teach you that the struggle is not the kind you supposed it was and that there are better ways to fight it if necessary or to avoid it entirely—all simple lessons, but true, and these cases illustrate them.

The harder part is to show that this Bright Promise of Failure scenario can work in regard to Iraq and the Middle East and the struggle against terrorism. I offer no guarantees of success. Yogi Berra is right: it is always dangerous to prophesy, especially about the future. I also make no claim to expert knowledge of Middle East politics or access to intelligence. My expertise is as a historian, a bird that flies backward and knows where it has been better than where it is going. Oddly, however, my analysis and predictions on the Iraq War and the so-called Global War on Terror in articles published since 9/11, a good number in this journal, hold up better now than those of most of the supposed experts.

There is a reason for this. The main intellectual defect in current American foreign policy is the lack of any sense of history, particularly as the British historian Lewis B. Namier defined it: a trained intuitive sense of the way things do not happen. (How they actually happen depends on the evidence.) America’s leaders and their advisers, including some so-called historians and political scientists, not only are ignorant of history and insensitive to it, they despise and repudiate it. Their favorite epithet for opponents is to accuse them of having a pre-9/11 mentality, of believing that history before September 2001 still tells us something.

Neither having a sense of history nor wanting one, their calculations and policies are thoroughly infected with that disease fatal for good policy, for which a sense of history is the best prophylactic and cure—utopianism. It is the blind optimism, the utopianism of this administration, along with its dishonesty, that accounts for its record of repeated promises and calculations that anyone with a sound historical sense could tell were not going to work. Their particular brand of utopianism, moreover, combines its two worst forms—a radical utopianism that believes that the evils to be fought are simple, readily identified, and easily capable of being rooted out and replaced with good, and the utopianism of Machtpolitik, the belief that with enough power resolutely applied one can do anything.

One requirement for reaping any profit from accepting failure in Iraq, then, is a clear anti-utopian sense of history, a willingness to recognize and respect limits and reject self-delusion—something any reasonably educated, sensible person can develop. It also helps if we avoid some natural but erroneous assumptions about what accepting failure in foreign policy involves. It is not simply a first preliminary step, a matter of seeing that you are in a hole and should stop digging. It involves a rigorous, active search for the deeper causes of failure and thus becomes a strategic maneuver, a way of seeking and creating conditions needed for climbing out of the hole.

Another natural assumption would be that harvesting success from failure requires a clear policy delineating the principles and steps that will lead from failure to success. Most Americans and a majority of observers worldwide recognize that staying the course to victory in Iraq is not a real policy and that recent proposals by neoconservatives to up the ante by attacking Syria and/or Iran and having the president declare that America is in World War III are certifiably insane. But thoughtful persons looking for a way out are confronted with at least four alternative lines of policy, each strongly advocated and all at least sane and intellectually defensible. These approaches can be broadly characterized as semi-isolationist/libertarian, realist balance-of-power, leftist-reformist, and internationalist or (misleadingly) Wilsonian. The differences between them are not trivial, and the debate over which is best is not inappropriate—except at this time when the critical issue is whether the country will face the fact of decisive failure in Iraq at all. On that score their differences make no real difference; advocates of all four of these approaches today agree on rejecting the current course and taking some initial steps for recovery and ultimate success. Disputes over the merits of these approaches at this point only confuse the public and help the administration and its neocon prophets to propose their nostrums as no-nonsense remedies.

Even more necessary than this “first things first” basis for consensus among opponents of the war is a better understanding of the nature of the broad global contest the U.S. is now engaged in and the definition of success in it. Nothing in this discussion so far suggests a good slogan for a bumper sticker or a banner in an antiwar demonstration. That is as it should be; international politics is too complicated for slogans, and the slogans of the simplifiers in the administration have contributed to the terrible mess they have made. But for understanding the nature of the contest, one slogan would fit: “It’s Not a War, Stupid!”

Words are defenseless things. Any kind of struggle can be called a war—on drugs, poverty, crime, illiteracy—so long as one does not take the metaphor literally and wage the contest as if it really were a war. An NFL coach who urges his players to go to war with the opposing team does not expect them to start shooting. Yet Bush & Co. insist that all their campaigns—against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein’s regime, the insurgency and sectarian violence in Iraq, Hamas and Hezbollah, terrorism in general, and potentially against Syria and Iran—are literally wars and all are against the same generic foe, terrorism; that America is under military attack; and that these enemies, all lumped together, must be fought primarily by military means.

This incessant beating of the war drum is enormously important. It has served as the main propaganda weapon for Republicans at the polls; the rationale for every expansion of executive authority now leading the country toward a constitutional crisis; the justification for every violation of international law; the cover for all the abuses, atrocities, and instances of collateral damage in civilian casualties and destruction attendant on military action; the excuse for massive expenditure, waste, and corruption; and the main weapon used to silence critics, vilify opponents, and cover up illegality, fraud, and incompetence in government. The insistence that America is at war, combined with a persistent refusal to pay for it or require sacrifices of most Americans, has contributed to a massive distortion of public spending, huge and growing deficits of every kind, a dangerous militarization of American thought and society, and the destruction of any sense of responsibility in both the government and the public.

Worst of all, the propaganda campaign has worked and is still working politically. Though a majority of Americans polled believe the wars on terror and in Iraq are not going well and now consider the war in Iraq a mistake or at least not worth its costs, few Americans, including opponents of the war in Iraq and Bush’s general policy, doubt that 9/11 put America in a state of war, and most still believe that this war must be prosecuted and ended successfully, even if they cannot exactly define victory.

This belief that the United States is now genuinely in a state of war against terrorism, still the president’s greatest electoral asset, represents at best massive misconception and confusion. The United States, along with many other major governments and advanced, orderly societies, is engaged in a struggle to defend the rule of law, order, and security at home and to sustain a decent international system abroad against irregular attacks and crimes by individuals, groups, and factions within various countries. This is therefore essentially a struggle of governments against a diverse assortment of criminal anti-government groups. Those who oppose terrorism and terrorist groups have a prime interest in promoting this view and in keeping as many governments as possible united and engaged in the struggle against terrorists as a legal international campaign against criminal enemies of all regular states and governments.

Proclaiming this a war and waging the struggle primarily by military means works concretely against this purpose and helps terrorists. The fact that terrorist leaders and groups may have declared war on the United States and other countries and carried out attacks against them makes no difference. They have a major interest in making this a war. It legitimizes them, ennobles their cause and their actions in the eyes of followers and sympathizers, gives them international stature, and lures opponents into the kinds of overreactions that delegitimize them, alienate their natural allies and the neutrals, and split the anti-terrorist governmental front.

A little history to illustrate: throughout the 19th century, conservative regimes in Europe, especially Austria and Russia, waged a mortal struggle against revolutionary groups and organizations. They hated and feared these enemies as much as Americans do terrorists today, and given the weakness of these regimes and the genuine threat revolution posed to them they had far better reason to do so. Their efforts to suppress revolution, often counterproductive and finally ending in failure, included the use of their armies at various times against revolutions at home or in allied regimes abroad. But they never made the blunder of justifying their repressive actions at home and abroad by saying they were at war with the revolutionaries. They knew that this would elevate the status of their foes, alienate friends and neutrals, and negate the strongest card in their hands—their claim to be enforcing law and defending civilization against international criminals.

This is not a matter of diplomatic-legal terminology or an academic distinction. The American insistence on calling its campaign against particular terrorists a Global War on Terror has gratuitously given its enemies an important victory in a struggle in which politics, image and propaganda are more than half the battle. The decision to attack Iraq, a state clearly no threat to the United States, multiplied that propaganda victory many times over, and the impression of America it created—that of a country ruthless and powerful in military conquest but incompetent and impotent in civic follow-up—has multiplied it again. Americans, led by their government, seem incapable of understanding that this worldwide contest is not a shootout at the OK Corral but judo. The object is not to eliminate the opponent but to unbalance and overthrow him, using his own offensive lunges to do so. Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, the Iraqi insurgents, even Saddam himself understood that, with the result that America, though incomparably stronger, has been thrown off balance far more than they.

This understanding of the contest as a long-term political, legal struggle to uphold the rule of law rather than a war, and judo rather than a gunfight, must also change the American definition of success. The administration, with most of the media and many voters in tow, has consistently defined victory in terms of missions supposedly accomplished, positive gains allegedly achieved. Time and again it has hailed particular triumphs as breakthroughs and turning points, proof that the U.S. is on the road to victory—military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, installation of “friendly” regimes, introduction of “democratic” institutions and reforms, capture or killing of particular enemies, defeat of certain insurgent forces or risings, conduct of elections, adoption of constitutions, formation of a “permanent”, “sovereign” government in Iraq, a roadmap for peace in Palestine, the death of Yasser Arafat and democratic elections in Palestine—only to have every glorious victory quickly turn to ashes in the mouths of the administration and its followers.

Why? Lack of planning, incompetence, poor intelligence, insufficient manpower, bad decisions, inexperience, unfamiliarity with an alien environment? Yes, all these and more, but the deeper reason for failure is a wrong concept of victory. In this contest, as in the 19th-century contest of legitimate regimes against revolution, victory cannot mean crushing the evil and establishing the reign of Freedom and Democracy throughout the world by glorious victories on the battlefield or elsewhere, but (in the words of Austria’s Prince Metternich) outliving the evil. That is not compromise or surrender. It means ensuring that one’s own values, institutions, and way of life survive and ultimately thrive while those who would overthrow them are gradually marginalized and ultimately die out. That is the only kind of victory in this contest America can achieve or should aspire to.

History does not repeat itself, but it does show repetitive patterns. In looking for clues from previous instances where Americans harvested success from acknowledged failure—the Korean War, Vietnam, recognition of Communist China, and accepting strategic parity with the Soviet Union—it makes sense to start with the assumptions behind the original policies that ultimately failed and had to be abandoned. In all four instances American policy rested initially on certain common assumptions: the threat being confronted was uniquely grave; failure to meet and defeat it now would have a domino effect, leading to its becoming steadily worse and potentially unstoppable; the danger could not be met by normal international politics but required either the direct application of military force or the possession of clear military superiority and willingness to use it as a deterrent; and finally, the U.S., if it acted with the necessary resolve, would bring most of the rest of the world into line with its action or at least deter others from opposing it, that the tide of history threatening to turn against America would thus be turned back in its favor, and that the defeat of this particular enemy on this particular front would decisively promote the ultimate victory of the good cause.

These assumptions were not obviously irrational, stupid, or cover for a hidden agenda. The North Korean invasion, regardless of its origins out of an emergent Korean civil war rather than a worldwide Communist offensive against the free world, was a serious military attack on an American ally and a threat to the American position in East Asia that needed to be met with force. Much of Southeast Asia did seem ripe for Communist takeover from Vietnam. The regime of Mao Zedong was one of the most revolutionary and ruthless in history. The USSR was a superpower with a tyrannical regime, oppressive empire, formidable military, and the nuclear power to destroy the world.

Yet after a half-century or less, these original assumptions can be seen and acknowledged as having been wrong—not dead wrong, wholly without foundation or excuse, but flawed, exaggerated, one-sided, and hence when used as the basis for policy destined to make things worse rather than better.

That recognition did not come automatically nor was it a precondition and cause of the reversal of policy. In all four instances what came first was a recognition that the task assigned America by its current policy—uniting Korea under American control, defeating the Viet Cong and preserving an independent anti-Communist pro-American South Vietnam, defending Taiwan as the legitimate government of mainland China, and denying the Soviet Union its status as a strategic equal with equivalent military power—was not feasible, that the goal was not attainable at any acceptable risk and cost. Only then did the majority of decision-makers and the general public begin seriously to question the assumptions on which the strategy of the impossible rested. Yet this recognition of failure and the resultant gradual changes in policy inevitably entailed and produced a change in thinking as well as in strategy and tactics—the kind of turnaround needed in America now.

In each instance, the U.S. gave up unachievable goals and settled for temporary, provisional, managerial solutions, truces, or standoffs; accepted or deliberately sought multilateral, negotiated outcomes based on compromise; and sometimes made major concessions to its opponents to reach them.

These were more than mere tactical moves forced by hostile pressure. They simultaneously produced and were accompanied by a change in thinking and approach. The U.S. government, in practice if not in overt proclamation or ideology, ceased viewing each particular danger primarily in global terms as part of an overarching worldwide threat and instead aimed to handle each as a local, limited challenge, isolating it where possible from the putative global contest, even where and when Americans believed that the global contest was real and serious. This enabled it consciously to induce divisions among its opponents and exploit these.

At the same time this shift enabled the U.S. to control and reduce its commitments to its subordinate allies, persuading or forcing them to make compromises, share or assume burdens and risks, and give up their particular goals in order to retain general American support. The South Korean regime had to abandon its goal of unifying Korea through American arms. Taiwan had to accept American recognition of its worst and most threatening foe as the legitimate government of China and ultimately of Taiwan itself. The South Vietnamese regime had to accept destruction. West Germany had to give up any prospect of German unification for the foreseeable future. In a sense, America made others pay the main price for the success it achieved by accepting failure.

Why did this work? Because once Americans woke up to the impossible character of their aims and the flaws in their basic assumptions, they cleverly adjusted themselves to reality and managed their problems with skill and moderation? Not mainly. It would do little to correct the radical utopianism of the Bush administration and its followers to encourage Americans to think that even if they cannot win simply by being militarily all-powerful, they can achieve whatever they want through clever and forceful diplomacy. The U.S. succeeded for a number of reasons that had little to do with its own power and skill and far more with favorable international conditions not under American control.

Our main opponents, though formidable and impossible to destroy or defeat by military force, were neither as powerful nor as stable internally nor as aggressive and revolutionary in their foreign- policy aims nor as incapable of compromise and coexistence as we supposed. In other words, normal international politics could work with them. Besides that, these opponents were less united than we imagined, more riven by internal rivalries and disputes they had to manage and the U.S. could exploit. In contrast, the U.S. had genuine partners rather than satellites, allies who were ready to help promote compromise solutions where they could not support the American quest for victory. As for our client states and those we defended, in all these cases save that of South Vietnam, they were not merely willing under pressure to accept the sacrifice of particular aims for general peace but in certain instances actually welcomed and co-operated with these aims (e.g., West Germany’s promotion of détente and the Helsinki Accords in the 1970s and Japan’s welcoming of the recognition of China). It was also important that on both sides governments were able and willing to control and marginalize their own extremists pushing for aggressive measures to achieve decisive victory over the enemy.

Most important, however, is the fact that this different approach changed the arena and rules of the contest from one that the U.S. could not win at any acceptable cost, and that its allies and friends did not want to fight, into one that the U.S. and its side of the world were far better suited to wage: a contest over what kind of government, society, economy, and politics was best at peaceful coexistence.

Critics insist that this is all old history, rendered obsolete by 9/11. What the U.S. now faces is a wholly different situation and array of foes—rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea, terrorist organizations with global reach immune to sanctions or pressure because they have no address or permanent interests to defend, the possibility of WMD being used by fanatical ideologues with purely destructive aims and suicidal followers deterred by no moral restraints or civilized codes. To talk of diplomatic strategies for dealing with these is the worst kind of self-delusion.

Most astonishing about this ubiquitous response is not the lack of historical sense it reveals but the absence of memory. Again allowing for changed circumstances, these arguments were used time and again, at even greater volume and with better reason, to argue the futility of dealing with the North Koreans, the Chinese, the Soviets, and the Vietnamese except by force. The extremist hawks were wrong then and they are wrong now. The global terrorist threat is no more real now than the global Communist threat was then. Terrorism is mostly concentrated on particular local and regional aims and directed against particular local enemies. The identifiable terrorist groups and organizations are fragmented and divided by serious fault lines and disagreements. Iran is hostile and verbally belligerent but tactically and strategically more concerned with its defense against the United States and Israel and its influence in the Shi’ite world than with holy war against infidels. Hamas and Hezbollah have particular goals; so does Syria. Everyone now recognizes—though Bush will never admit it—that the insurgents and resisters to the American occupation in Iraq are very much divided and often hostile toward each other. The point is not that they are harmless or should be ignored or pampered but that using the tactics of the gunfight against them only drives them together and increases their number, while combating them with judo would divide them and decrease their threat.

Above all, recognizing failure in Iraq means seeing not simply that the U.S. has not succeeded to this point but that it cannot ever succeed in what it set out to do by this war—supplant the regime of Saddam Hussein with a stable, democratic, friendly Iraq—because the strategy was fundamentally flawed, the execution worse, and the consequences by now such that anything American occupiers do, however well-intentioned, must make things worse. The longer America stays, the more it fuels the insurgency, the latent and growing civil war, the sectarian divisions, and the pervasive degradation of Iraq’s civil society.

As to concrete steps for turning this situation around, I offer no blueprint. Few blueprints in history are ever followed or work when they are. The rule in statecraft and warfare is improvisation guided by a general goal. In this case the general goal, to turn accepting current failure into eventual success, requires more than simply an exit strategy. Certainly one is necessary and overdue, but it should be more than a way of getting Americans out of harm’s way. Combined with other measures of strategic retreat, it can be a measure of active defense and offense, like apparently yielding to the opponent’s lunge in order to throw him off balance for a countermove.

An even better way to understand America’s task is to use a historical model full of relevance and potent lessons but so politically incorrect that neither party could embrace it and that those who would, chiefly radicals on the Left, would misuse it: to see the new policy as an attempt at successful disimperialism. Regardless of whether one considers the war in Iraq as continuing a longstanding American imperialist tradition or (as I do) a departure from America’s main Cold War tradition, two conclusions are inescapable.

First, the Iraq War originated in an attempt at American informal empire in the Middle East and remains mired in it. When one powerful country invades and conquers a small, weak country thousands of miles away with a very different culture, language, history, religion, and society in order to replace its regime permanently with one resembling the occupier’s own, change its economic structure, control its most important resource, and use it to dominate and change other regimes in the region, that is classic, unalloyed imperialism. To refuse to admit this and cover it up with transparent dodges of liberation, democratization, self-defense, and Global War on Terror is to indulge still further in the comforting lies that are ruining America’s capacity for world leadership and even for democratic self-governance.

Second, that imperialist effort has failed disastrously, America’s so-called unipolar moment is past, rotten before it was ripe, and the task before it now is disimperialism. Like Britain and France after World War II and the USSR after 1989, the goal has to be not merely to give up an untenable imperialist position but to do so in such a way as to protect vital interests, maintain a necessary position of leadership, and lay a new basis for eventual useful relations with the countries of the former or would-be empire.

That is bound to be a distasteful, delicate, and sometimes humiliating task, with many apparent setbacks and only long-range payoffs. But as history shows, it can be done, and there are at least some fairly concrete ways to approach it. The trick is making the decision to abandon the imperial venture clear and convincing to one’s own people and the rest of the world (including opponents), while at the same time showing that this is a strategic decision dictated by good sense and done from strength, not the product of weakness, despair, or disorientation.

A good place to start is with the public renunciation of failed, misconceived, counterproductive policies. There are three obvious candidates, favorites of Bush and the neoconservatives.

The first is the administration’s much trumpeted goal of transforming the Middle East through democratization, something impossible from outside, especially through military intervention and hostile pressure by the perceived main enemy of the region, and destabilizing and dangerous even where apparently successful. Political scientists and historians have long known that immature democracies are more unstable, aggressive, and war-prone than traditional regimes. Promoting democracy in Iraq has led to civil war and the nascent collapse of the country and in Palestine and Lebanon to greater power for radicals and terrorist groups.

The second is democratization’s twin —promoting regime change, particularly by military force or support for dissidents. Where this fails, as it usually does —witness Cuba—it discredits both the U.S. and the dissidents; where it succeeds, as in Afghanistan, it generally promotes failed states and rule by warlords, militias, and rival factions. Both outcomes contradict the main U.S. interest in working with regular, stable governments against terrorism and violence.

The third is promoting Western values in the Arab-Muslim worlds by public diplomacy, in particular attempts to sell the American way of life and convince others that Americans are truly friends and protectors of Islam and can serve as honest brokers. This whole project only serves to make the U.S. look ridiculous and discredit the moderates in Islam who would like to adapt to modernity, thus aiding the radicals. What will it take to convince many Americans that much of the world currently hates and fears the U.S. not because of its values but because of its policies and actions and that the only way to change that perception is to change those?

This part is fairly easy, a matter of discarding useless baggage. The next, announcing a genuine change in policy in convincing fashion without making it appear an act of desperation, is trickier. But there are ways to approach it. One is to announce a clear general goal not subject to conditions or compromises—in this case, the entire removal of American armed forces from Iraq in the near future and a comprehensive review with all the host countries of the status of American forces and bases throughout the region with an eye to reducing them—accompanied by an offer to work out the timing of these moves with the other parties concerned, including the current Iraqi government and any successor ones. The purpose of this, of course, is to change the American military presence from being publicly an albatross around the necks of these governments and privately a crutch they lean on to something that, if they want it, they need to seek, compete for, and acknowledge.

Along with this open announcement of a change in course needs to go some striking symbolic action to make the announcement credible. Here is an obvious candidate: publicly scrap the plans for the billion-dollar-plus American Embassy/fortress-city in the heart of Baghdad and commit America unconditionally to no military bases, bastions, stationing agreements, or other ways of staying on militarily in Iraq.

An even better political action would be for the U.S. government to call now for an international conference under other auspices than our own to discuss how to deal with the now inevitable civil war in Iraq and the possible breakup of the state. The participants would have to include all Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, and all vitally interested outsiders besides the United States. The point would not be to achieve concrete results, which is unlikely; even getting such a conference convened would be a long shot. Instead, like these other moves, the effort would serve to prove that the U.S. genuinely recognizes the problems its intervention helped cause, wants to share the burden of meeting them with others, and is not trying to control the outcome unilaterally.

There are other ways in which the U.S. could, if it tried, turn a strategic retreat into pursuit of a different kind of victory by robbing enemies of their main pretexts for hostile propaganda and actions, dividing them among themselves, and helping those who have common interests with America to co-operate with or at least not oppose it. The common interests are obvious—opposition to terrorism, need for stability, equal access to the oil and gas of the region, worry about the ripple effects of civil war and sectarian violence—and the potential divisions and rivalries to take advantage of are equally so.

I do not believe that the strategy urged here will be adopted—certainly not by the current administration, probably not by any successor or any future electorate. The reason is not that such a policy would not work. As I have argued, on objective historical and practical grounds it would stand a reasonable chance. Nor is it that present American political conditions, habits, and institutions make it unthinkable. Though there is much more to this argument, it is just possible that crushing defeats for the Republicans in 2006 plus the accumulation of further bad news from the Middle East might deter the administration from more mad gambles to cover existing losses and might embolden the Democrats and the public to try something really different.

The insuperable, structural obstacle to a serious pursuit of success in the Middle East through accepting failure in Iraq, the elephant in the room that I have carefully avoided mentioning hitherto, is Israel. More precisely, it is not Israel itself or its actions, but the fact that the United States has deliberately forfeited control over its policy toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts that form one critical aspect of the Middle East imbroglio. While the U.S. could conceivably change its policy and aims in regard to all its other vital aspects—Iraq, Iran, oil, regional security, even terrorism—I see no possibility that any party, administration, or American public will take the steps needed to regain that essential control.

Obviously this is not a subject that can be opened up, much less discussed here. I mention it solely in the interests of candor and to explain why this guardedly optimistic essay ends as a Cassandra cry. Perhaps better, it calls to mind Bismarck’s parting words to the third Turkish delegate to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, a Congress that rescued the Ottoman Empire from part of its losses in revolts, crises, and wars in 1875-1878: “This is your last chance—and if I know you, you will not take it.”


Paul W. Schroeder is professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Transformation of European Politics, 1765-1848.

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