The Neocon Temptation

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed …"

There may be a better description of what is happening in Iraq than the words of Yeats’. It does not come to mind.

Before President Bush ordered Gen. Tommy Franks to invade, four forces held Iraq together: Saddam’s regime, the Baath Party, the secret police and the army. The conquering Americans, as has been their way from Sherman to LeMay, smashed them all.

The center that held Iraq together, repulsive as it was, is gone. But, the comment of Yuval Diskin, head of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet, may yet prove incisive: "I’m not sure we won’t come to miss Saddam."

The Shi’ites have been the principle beneficiaries of our intervention. Liberated from Saddam’s rule, under U.S. rules of one-man, one-vote they were, with 60 percent of the population, the certain inheritors of the estate. Yet, Shi’ite conduct calls to mind the remark of the Austrian prime minister after Tsar Nicholas I intervened to save the Hapsburgs from revolution in 1848: "We shall astonish the world with our ingratitude."

America has made many blunders in this war. The greatest was to invade Iraq on the pretext it was a threat to the United States and inflame 300 million Arabs and a billion Muslims against us.

But that decision, endorsed by a Democratic Senate that gave Bush a blank check, cannot be revisited or reversed. As Dean Rusk used to say, "We are there, and we are committed."

What should we do? And what will Bush do?

In surveys, 63 percent of Americans believe Iraq was a mistake, 70 percent have lost confidence in Bush as war leader and 72 percent of U.S. forces in Iraq believe we should be out by year’s end. Bush’s base is slipping away, and 2006 is the make-or-break year.

So, where do we stand on this third anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom to bring democracy to Mesopotamia?

The dynamiting of the Golden Mosque in Samarra has brought reprisals against Sunni mosques and imams, and pulled Iraq close to the brink of sectarian and civil war. To understand what could happen to the Shi’ites north and west of Baghdad and to Sunnis in the south, one might reread what became of the Greeks in Smyrna when the Turks arrived in 1922, or to the Hindu and Muslim peoples when India and Pakistan tore apart at independence in 1947.

The new Iraqi government, army and security forces are too weak and divided to prevent civil war without the U.S. presence, the indispensable pillar of the state.

Our fate, it seems, is to be that of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. As punishment, he was chained to a rock, as vultures ate at his liver. And so, too, are we chained by our own responsibility for what is about to happen — to the rock of Iraq.

If Bush should reduce our forces to 100,000 by year’s end as planned, he risks the civil war that will destroy all we have accomplished and wash down a sewer everything for which 2,300 Americans died and 16,000 have been wounded. That sectarian war could spread across the Islamic world.

It is impossible to see how Bush, who must know a pullout could bring chaos and civil war and convert into a historic defeat and debacle a war he launched, is going to do this. A stubborn man who yet believes in the cause, Bush seems certain to soldier on in the hope it will all turn out well, as it did for Lincoln.

But while we retain the forces in Iraq to prevent a collapse, we do not have the forces to defeat the enemy. And as our allies depart, it is unlikely Americans will support more U.S. troops or many more billions to rebuild the country.

Were this a financial investment, Iraq would have been written off and our losses cut a long time ago. But for Bush to write it off is to write himself off as a failed president who committed the greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history.

And so the president is now being offered a way out by his neocon counselors: escalate. Take the war to the enemy, as we should have from the beginning. Use U.S. air power to wipe Iran’s nuclear facilities off the map. Go all-out for victory. Emulate Lincoln, Churchill, FDR, Truman.

With his poll ratings in the pits, and his party facing almost certain and heavy losses in the fall, Bush may yet yield to the neocon temptation. For unlike LBJ in 1968, he does not seem reconciled to going back to his ranch as a failed president.