Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Big Dreamers And Fools

Conservative columnist David Brooks seems to have a reinvigorated sense of optimism concerning our mission in Iraq. The erstwhile supporter of the invasion, who had subsequently experienced doubts about the wisdom of this war, has reemerged from his cocoon of uncertainty to declare that the current administration is about to "muddle its way to success" in Iraq. His sanguine outlook is based on a thesis he draws from an observation of American History:

"American history sometimes seems to be the same story repeated over and over again. Some group of big-dreaming but foolhardy adventurers head out to eradicate some evil and to realize some golden future. They get halfway along their journey and find they are unprepared for the harsh reality they suddenly face. It's too late to turn back, so they reinvent their mission. They toss out illusions and adopt an almost desperate pragmatism. They never do realize the utopia they initially dreamed about, but they do build something better than what came before."

In essence, Brooks is saying that although there have been mistakes and miscalculations, and unreal expectations, America will eventually get it right, even though the eventual outcome might be a somewhat tempered version of the original grandiose goal. Something akin to the famous quote by Sir Winston Churchill, "You can trust the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried every other alternative."

Brooks points to two major moments in American history to support his thesis: the colonists in Jamestown and the settlers' early attempts out West. While these two episodes fit nicely into the pattern he describes, there are certainly other notable examples that run counter to his predictions. For example, our efforts in Vietnam seem to fit nicely into the first part of his pattern ("foolhardy adventurers head out to eradicate some evil and to realize some golden future. They get halfway along their journey and find they are unprepared for the harsh reality they suddenly face"), but the outcome was not nearly as rosy as his thesis would predict.

Instead of adapting to the realities on the ground, the U.S. military remained locked in to the destructive and counterproductive policies that governed the initial stages of the war. Through stubbornness and political face-saving concerns, we prolonged the war and increased the resistance, which in turn led to the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers, and many times that number of Vietnamese. Shortly after American forces departed, the South was overrun by North Vietnamese forces and there was nothing we could point to that would suggest that we had built "something better than what came before." Instead what was left were mass graves, active land mines, a population traumatized and terrorized by decades of war, families torn apart by conflict and loss and many fatherless children.

I will be the first to admit that the Vietnam analogy is overused and somewhat inaccurate when applied to the current crisis in Iraq, but in this sense it is an appropriate comparison. My deepest fear is that America will be forced to beat a hasty and premature retreat from Iraq and that the country will undergo a period of violence and brutality, possibly even a civil war, and that the eventual ruling faction that emerges may not be much better than Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, I fear that our actions in Iraq will seriously compromise our efforts to conduct operations against terrorists worldwide. Much of our money will have been spent, alliances strained, credibility lost, and anger in the Muslim world will be at such a fevered pitch that extremists will be able to recruit many more terrorists and that they will all enjoy more popular support and legitimacy. I hope that I am wrong and the Brooks is right, but I take no solace from history's lessons.

The rest of Brooks' column can be found here.

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