Worse Than Vietnam

FORGET ABOUT GROUNDHOG DAY. As we enter the fourth year of the war in Iraq, this looks like it’s going to be a Groundhog Decade. With alarming regularity this past week, George W. Bush popped up on the tube, casting a long, dark shadow over our future. All of it reminding us that our political and military winter in Iraq may just be starting.

After months of guarded suggestions that this would be the year of American pullback from Iraq, now the president tells us that the withdrawal of troops will be in the hands of future presidents. He forgot to mention that they — along with our children and our children’s children — will also have to deal with the wave of unintended, unimagined and unanticipated consequences of our greatest foreign-policy catastrophe since Vietnam.

Maybe worse than Vietnam. While the level of bloodshed and casualties in that conflict was much higher, its closing chapters played out almost in an inverse way. By the time Saigon fell, both the Russians and the Chinese, our principal adversaries at the time, had long tired of supporting the Vietnamese. The Chinese, especially, wanted to cozy up to the U.S., and the ending of the war cleared the way.

Iraq is a different story. Our intervention and continuing presence have done absolutely nothing except fuel a seething, global Islamic extremism. Bush might even be right by now — in affirming that Iraq has become the central front in the war on terror. To the degree that might be true, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy — a direct byproduct of the intervention itself. Just as the ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (along with some CIA funding) conjured an entire generation of jihadists (among them, those who flew into the Twin Towers), so is the American occupation in Iraq now generating the next.

Long after the history books have consigned George W. Bush to the category of barely remembered failed presidencies, the aftershocks of his policies will still be rattling America.

For the moment, he continues to view the Iraqi debacle like an autistic child staring blankly through an iced-up window. None of the complex and perilous realities he has created seem to penetrate his discourse. We’re now up to 2,300 American deaths and more than 17,000 wounded. Iraqi casualties are much higher, and uncounted. Yes, there have been elections, but there is no functioning Iraqi government. We have, we are told, “stood up” the beginning of an Iraqi fighting force, only to learn that its first high-profile campaign last week was mostly a phantom exercise. Meanwhile, the Iraqi security forces have turned out to be the same as the Shiite death squads. What rump regime there is in Baghdad is unduly influenced by the mullahs in Iran. For this, we have thrown our children into the meat grinder? To liberate the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein and replace him with self-flagellating, Iranian-backed religious zealots?

Beyond the human cost of this war is its gushing drain on the national treasury. Some analysts now estimate that it will top out at a trillion dollars. When I first heard that number a few days ago, I had to go back and double-check that I had gotten it right. As staggering and as unfathomable as that sum might be, I had. A trillion dollars for what, exactly? And it’s not only the fantastic sums squandered in Iraq, it’s a trillion dollars not spent on anything else.

I DON’T KNOW IF IRAQ has or has not entered a civil war. But the guy who was Our Man in Baghdad until recently — former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi — thinks so. Shouldn’t we be taking him seriously? Shouldn’t his warnings be credible enough to puncture the president’s mental bubble? I think we know that answer. The autistic president would rather take counsel from his imaginary friends — his closest advisers, who speak so softly and reassuringly to him as he traces his finger on the frosted windowpane.

This war will end only, and only maybe, when the Republicans are electorally defeated. With the president at a 33 percent popularity rating, with congressional Republicans running scared and scattered, and with the 2006 midterms threatening to become a nationalized election, there’s actually some reason to hope.

All the better reason for Democrats — excuse my frankness — to stop dicking around with feel-good crusades for impeachment and censure. Both are wonderfully fun ideas, chock-full of schadenfreude for a despised and despicable president. But they are, in reality, self-jollying distractions. Right now, the first step in halting our present disastrous course is to defeat the Republican majority in the House and to start using it as a countercheck on executive power. Fifteen lousy seats are what’s needed to start putting on the brakes. There’s no need to impose some restrictive litmus test on voters. They must not be asked to hate George W. Bush or to demand his prosecution, but rather be persuaded to vote for his opposition — if a credible one can be found.


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