At the risk of sounding a tad smug, Paul Krugman agrees with me.
The Bush administration fostered the Iraq insurgency by botching the essential tasks of enlisting allies, rebuilding infrastructure, training and equipping local security forces, and preparing for elections. It’s understandable, then, that John Kerry – whose speech yesterday was deadly accurate in its description of Mr. Bush’s mistakes – proposes going back and doing the job right.
But I hope that Mr. Kerry won’t allow himself to be trapped into trying to fulfill neocon fantasies. If there ever was a chance to turn Iraq into a pro-American beacon of democracy, that chance perished a long time ago.
But if the chance to install a pro-American government has been lost, what’s the alternative? Scaling back our aims. This means accepting the fact that an Iraqi leader, to have legitimacy, must be able to deliver an end to America’s military presence. Unless we want this war to go on forever, we will have to abandon the 14 “enduring bases” the Bush administration has been building.
The point is that by winding down America’s military presence, while promising aid to those who don’t harbor anti-American terrorists and retaliation against those who do, the U.S. can probably leave behind an Iraq that isn’t an American ally, but isn’t a threat either. And that, at this point, is probably the best we can hope for.
That’s pretty much what I had in mind last week.
What can we learn about the future of Iraq from Vietnam? Talking heads are fond of using Vietnam as the template for Iraq in making the case both for and against the war. The pro-war people are saying we can learn something from our experiences forty years ago in Vietnam; the anti-war people say we’ve learned nothing. The consensus among some military people is that the war in Iraq is not winnable on the terms we’d like: a peaceful democratic country and a model for the rest of the Arab world. Instead, we have a rising insurgency, an interim government that can barely keep the capital secure (at the height of the war in Vietnam, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was a bustling city of commerce and everyday life), and Iraq has become the recruiting poster for every disgruntled unemployed Islamic teenager to join Al-Qaeda with promises of glory and revenge. The best that we can hope for in Iraq is the outcome we achieved in Vietnam: a stable, ordinary country that someday will become the leading trading partner with the west for whatever industry they can salvage from the wreckage we’ve left them.
The tragedy, in the truest sense of the word, is that the lessons of war are always learned too late. The damage has already been done.