Skip to content

Congress, Media Could Talk U.S. Into Iraq Defeat

The American establishment, led by the media and politicians, is in danger of talking the United States into defeat in Iraq. And the results would be catastrophic.

[IMGCAP(1)]The media — unperturbed by mistakenly likening both the Afghan war and last year’s invasion of Iraq to Vietnam — focuses overwhelmingly on the bad news coming out of Iraq. There is plenty of bad news — but there is also much good, and it is being almost completely ignored.

Some Members of Congress — either out of a passion to defeat President Bush, pique at not being listened to by the Bush administration, or simply a need to hear their own voices — are declaring the war “unwinnable” or “a quagmire,” or are demanding an “exit strategy.”

Both the media and Congress are obsessed with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. It is awful, but both institutions are treating it as if it were the most important occurrence of the war.

The decapitation of Nicholas Berg — which, it merits reminding, required several cuts of the knife to stop his screaming — was a front-page story for just one day. Only one newspaper that I know of, the Dallas Morning News, plus the Weekly Standard magazine, made the point that Berg’s murder is “why we fight.”

By now, Abu Ghraib has been a lead story for weeks. And Congress has gone so far as to pull top U.S. commanders back from the battle zone to grill them about it — just as America’s enemies are launching what they hope will be the Iraqi equivalent of the 1968 Tet offensive, hoping to undermine the June 30 handover of power to Iraqis.

In 1968 — by no accident, a U.S. presidential election year — the Viet Cong launched a massive countrywide offensive in South Vietnam, invading the U.S. Embassy complex in the process.

By every military measure, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces devastated the Communist forces. (It’s all recorded in the late Peter Braestrup’s masterful book “Big Story.”) Yet the U.S. media reported the episode as a U.S. defeat, helping convince the American establishment that the war was unwinnable.

In this respect, there is a real danger that Iraq could become like Vietnam — a self-inflicted defeat. Public support for the war is down, and even conservative columnists such as David Brooks and George Will are implying that Bush’s aims are unachievable.

Although everyone says they support American troops in Iraq, soldiers have to wonder whether the country is fully behind their mission. Iraqis, too, have to be wondering: Will America stay the course?

President Bush surely will. He strikes me as being as resolute as George Washington was at Valley Forge, Abraham Lincoln after the early defeats of the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt in the darkest days of World War II. They didn’t have “exit strategies,” either.

But if Congress and the media raise doubts that Bush can “finish the job,” then Iraqis — who already have good reason to doubt American resolve, given our performance during and after the 1991 Gulf War — will lose all faith that they can have a stable country.

This is not to suggest that Bush is blameless. History may agree with today’s critics that Bush was utterly wrong about Iraq: that Saddam Hussein was a containable threat, that war was unnecessary and that the idea of building a democracy in the Arab world was wildly idealistic and unattainable.

Indeed, even before history is written, the situation in Iraq may lead to Bush’s defeat in November. He has surely bet his presidency on a successful outcome, and right now the polls indicate he will lose.

But it’s utterly vital that Americans give the enterprise every chance of success. The consequences of failure will be disastrous—not just for Bush, but for Iraqis, for America, for the Middle East and for civilization itself.

If Iraq descends into chaos, Iraqis who have sided with the United States will be butchered. For some time, America will cease to be seen as the leader in the world, no matter who is president. The forces of evil — Islamic fanatics and Saddamist killers — will be ascendant in the Middle East. The forces of democracy and liberalism will be defeated.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has an important role to play here — one that he sometimes fills well and sometimes not.

The Massachusetts Senator has said, “We have to succeed in Iraq” and, “We can’t cut and run.” He favors sending in more troops and has pledged to support Bush’s latest request for $25 billion to sustain military operations.

At the same time, Kerry voted against Bush’s previous request for $87 billion, and last week he blasted Bush for running an “extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted war.” He has demanded the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The rule for him, and for other politicians, ought to be this: Criticize constructively, recommend alternative policies, but don’t harp on Bush’s “mismanagement.”

My model for the political handling of the war — and, yes, on lots of other issues, readers of this column may have noticed — is Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

On April 26, Lieberman delivered a speech at the Brookings Institution in which he literally “pleaded” with his fellow politicians “to stop the bickering, to overcome the mistrust, to appreciate how similar are our current goals in Iraq and to work together to achieve them. I am calling for a bipartisan political truce on the homefront that will greatly help us achieve the victory that we all desire on the battlefront.”

A truce does not imply an absence of criticism, as Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) demonstrated in an op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post. In the column, they called for a “significant” troop increase, a detailed post-June 30 plan for Iraq, and a speedup of Iraqi elections from next January to this fall.

This is a hard time in Iraq — perhaps, as Tom Paine once said, a “time to try men’s souls.” On the other hand, after the head of the Iraqi Governing Council was murdered this week, Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rabai — a figure considered close to Grand Ayatolla Ali al-Sistani — declared that “these gangsters and terrorists will have to kill 25 million Iraqis who are longing for freedom, democracy and prosperity.”

Sistani, arguably the dominant political actor in Iraq, is clearly siding with the United States against upstart Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr. That’s good news. Americans should know more about it — and take heart.

Recent Stories

At Aspen conference, a call to prioritize stopping gun violence

Appeals court rules preventive care task force unconstitutional

Key players return to Congressional Softball Game, this time at the microphone

Bannon asks Supreme Court to keep him out of prison

Her family saw the horrors of the Holocaust. Now Rep. Becca Balint seeks to ‘hold this space’

Supreme Court clarifies when a gun law is constitutional