U.S. Embassy, Saigon, 4/30/75. The Age / Corbis/Bettmann
The Bush administration was probably right about one thing -- if you're conducting an unpopular war with no clear, achievable end in sight (in other words, no exit strategy), you'd best not apologize, explain or express the least bit of hesitation about your mission. In short, hold firmly to the intention to "stay the course," and ignore, criticize or mock alternative views. The least bit of equivocation, the slightest crack in the facade, and the whole flimsy structure can start to teeter like a house of cards -- or a helicopter balanced precariously on an embassy roof.
And now that events have forced even George Bush to abandon the "stay the course" rhetoric, the trickle of doubt does seem to be turning into a tidal wave of second guessing and recrimination -- especially in the media, which so long seemed lulled asleep by Bush's resolute words and whatever it was that they were drinking. The free ride seems to be just about over. Josh Marshall reflects on the unraveling at Talking Points Memo.
... the press is turning its hacking, slicing knives on the White House for the pitiful 'stay the course' debacle. The Times and the Post are holding a veritable northeast corridor schadenfreudethon.The problem is that the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld cabal -- apparently determined to reverse some of the lasting effects of the "Vietnam syndrome" -- seem well on the way to repeating one of that war's most awful mistakes, namely, the precipitous and unseemly way we withdrew. And for much the same reason. Right up to the end, very little planning was done for pulling the last American troops and support personnel out of Vietnam, guaranteeing that withdrawal, when it came, would be perceived as a hasty, disorganized retreat. After all, that's what it really means not to set a timeline for withdrawal. And we seem on the verge of making the same mistake now. Marshall appears to be alluding to this possibility, and how it might have been prevented.
There's a lesson here amid the cackling though, one which may be grimly echoed in our own departure if the country doesn't force the president's hand and prevent his ego from being the guiding force in our policy. Strategic retreats are often the choice of wise leaders, shrewd generals. Having the clarity of vision to see the difference between the possible and the desirable can often allow you to change course early and avoid a debacle later. Here you see the White House which has banged away at 'stay the course' and 'don't question the policy' for like two years now and suddenly at the crunch point they're bailing out. Or trying to bail out -- but now they really can't. The White House political czars look like nothing so much as those panicked embassy workers and refugees on the compound rooftop clamoring to get one of the last seats on those final helicopters out of Saigon. Same amount of planning, about as much dignity.Today's editorial in the NYT tries one more time to reshuffle the cards and come up with a tolerable hand at this late date -- "Trying to Contain the Iraq Disaster," they call it. But it's too little, too late, and in part, just plain goofy. "Stabilize Baghdad" is one recommendation.
Like I wrote earlier today, the president has run this war like a confidence game. And as you would expect, that's led to a bubble. The support is tough but brittle. Any move off the absolutes, with us or against us, stay the course vs. cut and run, and the whole thing starts to crack. Once the White House comes out for pragmatism and flexibility, that leaves them perilously close to embracing reality itself. And that, of course, is like the kryptonite of Bush's superherodom. After that, the deluge.
There have never been enough troops, the result of Mr. Rumsfeld’s negligent decision to use Iraq as a proving ground for his pet military theories, rather than listen to his generals. And since the Army and Marines are already strained to the breaking point, the only hope of restoring even limited sanity to Baghdad would require the transfer of thousands of American troops to the capital from elsewhere in the country. That likely means moving personnel out of the Sunni-dominated west, and more mayhem in a place like Anbar.But this is exactly what we have been trying to do, creating the recent spike in U.S. casualties. Shifting more troops to Baghdad would simply further increase the U.S. casualties without solving the problem. The only way outside military force can "stabilize" Baghdad is to destroy it, as we did with Fallujah. Short of that, we shouldn't be wasting either U.S. or Iraqi lives.
But Iraqis need a clear demonstration that security and rebuilding is possible. So long as Baghdad is in chaos they will have no reason to believe in anything but sectarian militias and vigilante justice. Once Washington is making a credible effort to stabilize Baghdad, Iraqi politicians will have more of an incentive to show up for reconciliation talks. No one wants to be a rejectionist if it looks like the tide might be turning.
"We had to destroy the village to save it" was hardly a winning strategy in Vietnam. Applying the same principle to one of the world's great cities, one that dates back to the dawn of civilization is madness. Nobody is seriously considering it, but short of that, half measures won't work. That's true of the NYT's proposals, and its also true of the "benchmarks" announced in Baghdad this morning.
It's time to face reality and start making plans for an orderly withdrawal. Otherwise, the inevitable pullout will be disorderly, and we'll just need a lot more helicopter landing pads in the Green Zone.