Three Years On


I'm just back from a panel discussion at Columbia on the Iraq war. I was out-classed by my fellows: Victor Davis Hanson, Ken Pollack, Joe Klein and Noah Feldman. The crowd was large but not too hostile. The general atmosphere was one of intense sadness at so much incompetence after so much potential. I learned a few things. I was not as aware as I should have been about how much Iran now controls the Ministry of Interior in Iraq; which makes dealing with them all the more necessary. Noah, Ken and I remain at some level befuddled by what can only be called the irrationality of the Bush administration's policies. I'm still amazed that, according to Joe, there are six times as many analysts devoted to China in the D.I.A. as devoted to Iraq. I'm still staggered that, despite insistence from Bush appointees on the ground, the administration refused to provide more troops when they were desperately needed. I still find baffling the enormous gap between the stakes the president enunciated and the casual, on-the-fly, on-the-cheap way in which this war was waged. I can see why it might provoke conspiracy theories and paranoia. I have come to the provisional conclusion that it is a function of the president himself. He is interested in the grand idea but utterly bored by its execution. He is also incapable of good management. The more you read about the screwing up of Iraq, the more you see that a lot of it was due to internal administration squabbles that the president was unwilling or too personally uncomfortable to resolve. He seems terribly awkward in the face of complexity and difficulty, of grappling with his own errors, as if he can simply will them away, rather than actually grapple with them.

I found out that John Kerry focus-grouped the question of whether he should bring up Bush's legalization of torture in the presidential debates. I discovered (and should have known) that VDH opposes torture and supported the McCain Amendment. Feldman believes that the law itself was riddled with loopholes. VDH still won't criticize this administration. His response to every factual elaboration of staggering ineptitude is to point to other wars and larger errors. At this point, the only thing defenders of Rumsfeld can do is direct attention elsewhere or sigh and hope that in the long view, everything will turn out okay. Maybe they will. But it seems to me that the American public is rightly losing patience with this crew - and that itself will affect the war. Patience is essential to pulling through. But is it at all reasonable to expect the American public to be patient with an arrogant, dismissive incompetent like Rumsfeld? There are limits to what human nature can accomplish. If the president wants the country to hang in there, he needs to replace his defense secretary - preferably with a tough-minded Democrat. If Iraq needs a national unity government to get through the next three years, then America needs a least a little bit of one itself. Over to you, Mr Bush. Are you serious about winning this war? Or are you still winging it?

(Photo: Samir Mizban/AP)