The image of a great nation felled by a simple miscalculation and struggling to find a way out is one of the oldest in history. From the Athenians in Syracuse to the British in North America in the 1770s, the French in Spain under Napoleon, and the United States in Vietnam—and now in Iraq—history has numerous examples of the known world’s strongest nation involving itself in a more or less hopeless cause. Much of the trouble in such cases stems from the conclusion reached at the very outset, that the adventure in question was something that had to be undertaken, and that policy objectives—which is what President Bush really seems to mean when he speaks of “strategy”—cannot be abandoned. Abandoning them would obviously have been painful in many of these cases, but in those in which the imperial power did at long last pull back, such as the British in the colonies and the United States in Vietnam, the consequences of defeat turned out to be surprisingly benign. Even if, however, they represent a setback, they would nearly always have been preferable to persisting until the whole nation is engulfed in a catastrophe.
Perhaps the most painful such case, because of its enormous consequences, was the experience of Germany during the First World War. Having unwisely decided in July 1914 that Germany would be well advised to seek a trial of strength with France, Russia, and possibly Britain then, rather than later, the German government and the German people convinced themselves that they were in a struggle for existence. For the first two years of the war they made steady gains in the East (although the liberation of Poland which that involved was actually bound to do the German Empire more harm than good because of its own Polish population), and occupied Belgium and much of northern France. They had no means of breaking the stalemate on the western front, however, and by late 1916 they were suffering enormously from the allied blockade. The Navy, supported by the Army, proposed unrestricted submarine warfare as the tactic to bring their most dangerous enemy, the British, to their needs. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg had valiantly held the line against this step for about eighteen months because he knew it would bring the United States into the war and doom any prospect of a negotiated peace, which he knew would probably be necessary at some point or another. Yet he was trapped because he did not feel strong enough to declare that Germany had to give up on total victory. So long as that remained the objective, the Germans had to try anything that might work, and both the military authorities and the German people had convinced themselves that submarines would do the job. Instead, they immediately brought the United States into the war.
Recently, for teaching purposes, I reviewed the story of Germany’s final collapse. It had eerily contemporary overtones. The Emperor, the emotional William II, never wavered in his belief that victory was possible and that the military, led in fact if not officially by General Ludendorff, would secure it. After Ludendorff’s great offensive of March-June 1918 stalled, leaving a wrecked German army in place, a retreat began in August, and Ludendorff panicked in September and asked for a new government to conclude an armistice—really a cease-fire—by appealing to President Wilson. When it became apparent that the only terms Germany could get would amount to surrender, Ludendorff panicked again and reversed course, determined to fight on. He was dismissed, but the Emperor refused to consider abdicating after Wilson indicated that that was probably necessary to get reasonable peace terms. By early November everyone was more concerned with figuring out who to blame for the impending catastrophe than anything else. On November 9th, a revolution overthrew the Empire, and two days later the new liberal government accepted the Allies terms. When the peace proved draconian, their prestige was wrecked.
I do not want to contribute to the loss of proportion that has taken over American opinion, especially elite opinion, since 9/11. Who governs Iraq is not, and never could be, a question of life and death for the United States. We have lived for many decades with an undemocratic Middle East and we can, and will, live with one for many more, one way or another. The political trends in the Middle East have been running strongly against us at least since the 1967 war, and it is remarkable, really, that we have held on to our position for so long. We do not face the kind of catastrophe Germany suffered in 1918; but like the Germans, we desperately need to be able to re-evaluate the stakes in order to let go of a failed policy that is costing us men, money, and prestige every day.
I was reminded of all this as I read this morning an op-ed by the neoconservative political scientist Eliot Cohen, who many years ago was a student of mine in a course that covered the story which I laid out above. Having optimistically beaten the drums for war in 2002 and published a book encouraging civilian authorities, in certain circumstances, to disregard military advice, he has for some time been willing to admit that the war is going badly. Like Bethmann Hollweg in 1916, however, he would rather give submarine warfare a try rather to admit failure and settle on the best terms available. His magic bullet—which, to be fair, he puts forth without great enthusiasm—is to turn the Iraqi government over to a military strongman. This evidently is under active discussion in Washington, and it seems incumbent upon me, as it should be upon policymakers, to analyze it in the way that the Germans declined to do for submarine warfare before undertaking it.
Although Cohen doesn’t mention it, this suggestion has a rather striking parallel with Vietnam. There, too, the United States was fighting for democracy, and after the overthrow of Diem by a military coup in 1963 Washington put a high priority on putting a civilian government in place. As two major books on the subject have shown, however—one of them my own—the Americans ran into an intractable problem through 1964 and into 1965: no coalition of South Vietnamese political forces wanted an all-out war with the Viet Cong and perhaps the North. The Buddhists in particular, who had become an important political force, wanted a neutralist solution for South Vietnam, and wrecked several attempts to form a government. They even convinced the military ruler for most of this period, General Khanh, that neutralism was better than all-out war, and the US maneuvered Khanh out of office in early 1965 as a result. After a few months more of fruitless attempts at civilian rule, we blessed the coup of Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, of whom Walt Rostow spoke in terms almost identical to those Cohen used yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, “A junta of military modernizers,” Cohen writes, “might be the only hope of a country whose democratic culture is weak, whose politicians are either corrupt or incapable.” After two more years, in 1967, we had tired of Ky, and turned to Nguyen Van Thieu, another general, as our candidate in Vietnam’s first Presidential elections. Thieu “won” with less than 35% of the vote, and four years later he managed to engineer a totally uncontested re-election. He never grew strong enough to deal with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.
“Military modernizers” is a good description, actually, of the military and Ba’athist governments that ruled Iraq from the overthrow of the monarchy in 1957 until 2003. Iraq was a more modern state by many measurements, including education and women’s rights, under Saddam Hussein than it will be under the various Islamic governments that will eventually succeed it. Cohen in effect is admitting that George H. W. Bush was right and neoconservatives like himself were wrong in 1991, when that Administration decided not to overthrow the Ba’athist regime. But meanwhile, there is no more evidence to support the idea that generals could solve our problems in Iraq today than there was in Vietnam in 1967. Since there are no Christian or Jewish generals who might do the job, the new strongman or strongmen will be either Sunnis or Shi’ites, and will therefore incur the wrath of the other faith and the active opposition of its militias. An interfaith junta would be about as effective as the current interfaith Iraqi government. An attempt to bring back Ba’ath party rule in a disguised form would be violently resisted, obviously, by the Shi’ite majority, and a Shi’ite strongman would look even worse to the Sunnis than the current situation.
"American prestige has taken a hard knock; it will probably take a harder knock," Cohen writes, "and in ways that will not be restored without a considerable and successful use of American military power down the road. The tides of Sunni salafism and Iran's distinct combination of messianism and power politics have not crested, and will not crest without much greater violence in which we too will be engaged." Cohen, in other words, is looking forward to the next war, against Iran, whose conquest (it is as large population-wise as Nazi Germany was) would require a draft and alliances such as we do not now have, because of the war in Iraq. It would be hard to imagine more striking evidence of the bankruptcy of neoconservative thought; our prestige and strength depend, he is saying, not on our values, our alliances, or any commitment to international law, but simply to our ability to kick ass and take names. He rejects the argument that will apparently be floated by James Baker, that we need some relationship with both Syria and Iran to bring some peace to the region. Yielding to reality, it seems, is not an option. That was what Germany had to do in 1916: to recognize that it was not going to rule Europe or rival Britain as a world power. We are not going to recreate the Middle East in our own image. Just as Christian Europe lived with militant Islam on its doorstep for several critical centuries in western history and just as we lived with Communism for most of the twentieth century, we will have to live with fundamentalist regimes for a long time. By defining certain regimes (including Iran and Syria) as evil, the Bush Administration has essentially made sensible policy impossible. It will take courage for any American leader, Democrat or Republican, to acknowledge this, but that will be more sensible than to search for the magic man who will run Iraq as we would like it to be run.