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One of the books in the backdrop of the White House Library must have been on quantum physics. As President George W. Bush stood awkwardly at his podium Wednesday night, nervously drawing breaths at each sentence as he began his long-awaited speech on Iraq, Washington’s parallel universes seemed to crowd the room.
I used to go to that library often, fleeing the commotion of another stationary policy. It was 1969. My universe was the National Security Council staff under then-President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger. We were fresh from another election in which America voted to end a war. Yet in another abhorrence of defeat, the familiar lure of some redeeming if only cosmetic victory, we met in secret to plan another escalation. “I can’t believe,” Kissinger told us, “that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” As we plotted a massive blow—the carpet bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong that happened three years later—the war America voted to end was only half over, with only half the dead whose names would fill the long black wall of Washington’s Vietnam Memorial.
There were other universes then, too. I sat across from the angry deflecting bravado of another military unable to admit defeat, impotence and its own ample share in the common disaster, officers who became mentors of our puerile power point generals of Mesopotamia. After I resigned from the White House over the invasion of Cambodia, I saw another universe of careerism, of craven equivocation in a Democratic opposition ever cowed by Republican chauvinism. I sat then across from maimed Vietnam veterans come to Capitol Hill to scream and murmur for peace, their bodies shaking in rage yet legs and arms strangely still, frozen in paralysis. Iraq is not Vietnam. Not just in the far wider geo-political ruin, but in sheer blind repetition of behavior expecting a different result, a mark of madness in nations as in individuals, it is worse.
The universes around Mr. Bush’s speech still tell the story. There is his, a feast for future biographers. At one of the most challenging moments in history, we cheered, and choose again, the most ill-equipped president and advisors of the most tragically uninformed and desperately held presumption. When those who ruled as his regents, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, were dominating the Ford Administration and seeding much of today’s calamity three decades ago in their own universes of ambition, twenty-nine year-old George W. Bush, the lineage’s least fortunate son, was in Midland, Texas, partying heartily and scrounging for some role on the rusty panhandle fringes of the oil business.
Then the others: In its plush offices, the American Enterprise Institute, so typical of Washington’s think tank warriors so near power, so far from Baghdad and the consequences of their prolix urgings to invade and surge—and now with many Neo-Cons venomously jumping ship, nearly the last of that relentlessly deficient claque, or any other constituency, to tell Mr. Bush what all failed politicians hope to hear, that he still has a chance to retrieve history.
Or the Democrats with their “symbolic” but hardly substantive rejection of escalation, calculating as usual that to not to commit, to await disaster without obvious complicity, will protect tenure in the Capital if not lives in battle. Or the anti-war critics who in symmetry often match the Democrats in cravenness and Mr. Bush in their self-delusion (about Democrats), and who now face the choice of mounting their own insurgency, their own saving escalation. Not least (though least it is for many) the universe of ordinary soldiers and their families, small hometowns and military post housing, overcrowded hospitals and sleepless nights so far from richly carpeted think tanks, interviews of presidential hopefuls in the stately Capitol Rotunda, or the muted, faux-manly tones of White House briefings. The ordinary universe can meet those others in a sense, of course—the parallel lines of a soldier’s life and the policy made by others with sleek impunity converging in a burst of blood in Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala.
There are no good options in Iraq, the President admitted between his lines. But that is not because Syria and Iran are hostile, or because Washington is not talking to them (one has to wonder what the demonstrably inept diplomats of this regime could be trusted to say to them). Nor because 21,000 or 40,000 more U.S. troops cannot meet even the Pentagon’s optimistic ratios to “clear and hold.” No, the war was lost before it began, in the simple ancient equation of power. In the overthrow of Ba’athist rule, its replacement by an armed, vengeful Shia majority (vengeance the U.S. fed by its covert installation and support of Saddam’s tyranny), all amid a politically ignorant, plundering and inevitably blundering occupation, the nightmare of Iraq and the chaos following a U.S. withdrawal have been as predictable as anything in world politics. Depending, that is, on one’s universe.
It hardly matters whether Mr. Bush’s speech is to salvage some “victory,” or is mere cover for defeat and retreat. There in the library the President had to admit Iraq will bleed on, and America with it. Unspoken, an attack on Iran by Israel or the U.S. hovered like a leering ghost over the “way forward.” And the tortured universe of Palestine, the bondage of America to Israel’s tragedy, waits beyond as it has for sixty years.
Anthropologists may attribute this persistent folly of policy, these universes, not simply to ignorance or our irremediable bipartisan provincialism, but to a deeper failure of sensibility, warriors afraid to leap beyond their worlds, where empathy must war with distaste and fear. There will surely be more awkward White House speeches. Having been there, I can tell you that the occupants do not really read the books in the library, and we do not do well with lost wars, at home or abroad. We will not soon bridge those universes so comfortably, fiercely, fearfully separate.
ROGER MORRIS, who served on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, is an award-winning historian and author of several books on American politics and foreign policy. His latest book, Shadows of the Eagle, a history of US covert intervention and policy in the Middle East and South Asia, will be published by Alfred Knopf in 2007. He can be reached at RPMBook@aol.com