Thinking the Unthinkable
April 19 2004
"I hope you got a sense of conviction about what we're doing," said the
president, as he ended his primetime press conference.
We certainly did. Indeed, listening Tuesday night, one must concede the
convictions, the earnestness and the resolve of the president that he is doing
what he believes best for America. And he has put his presidency on the line
behind those beliefs.
"The consequences of failure in Iraq would be unthinkable," he declared.
"Every friend of America would be betrayed to prison and murder as a new
tyranny arose. Every enemy of America would celebrate, proclaiming our
weakness and decadence, and using that victory to recruit a new generation of
There is truth here. Prison and murder were the fate of America's allies when
China fell in 1949 and Saigon in 1975. Millions who had declared themselves on
our side in the war against communism paid with their lives. The president is
also right that America's enemies will rejoice in any U.S. defeat.
That raises the question: Why did he risk such a defeat and humiliation?
Who failed to alert him as to what the consequences might be before he
invaded? Who told him this would be a "cakewalk"? Who said we would be
welcomed with flowers, that democracy would blossom in Iraq and across the
Middle East? Who led him up the garden path? And why are they still there?
President Bush's dilemma is this: Americans may agree that a defeat in Iraq
would be a disaster, but they are not convinced that democracy in Iraq is so
vital that Americans should bleed and die indefinitely to attain it.
And why should they be?
They signed on to a war to disarm and destroy a tyrant, not to decide what
kind of government Iraq has. The U.S. commitment to democracy in Iraq is a
classic case not only of mission creep, but of bait-and-switch.
In his opening statement, Bush gave five reasons why the "success of free
government in Iraq is vital." Not one justifies a war.
"A free Iraq is vital," he said, "because 25 million Iraqis have as much right
to live in freedom as we do." Fine. So do 17 million Syrians and 70 million
Iranians. Is it our duty, also, to invade and fight for their freedom? Or is
that perhaps their job?
"A free Iraq will stand as an example to reformers in the Middle East." But do
these "reformers" really lack for examples of freedom? And if their fathers
could overthrow the old imperial powers themselves, why cannot the sons rid
themselves of their own miserable tyrants?
"A free Iraq will show that America is on the side of Muslims who wish to live
in peace, as we've already shown in Kuwait and Kosovo, Bosnia and
Afghanistan." But if we've already shown that in Kuwait, Kosovo, Bosnia and
Afghanistan, why in blazes do we have to show it again in Iraq? How much proof
do these people need that we are on the "side of Muslims who wish to live in
"A free Iraq will confirm to the Muslim world that America's word, once given,
can be relied upon even in the toughest times."
Now, this is a crucial point. U.S. credibility is on the line. But who made
the rash judgment to put it there? And is President Bush now asking Americans
to support a wider war because he blundered in committing his country to
democracy in a land where it never existed and where thousands are willing to
fight to the death to resist our style of democracy?
"Above all, the defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat
of violence and terror elsewhere, and vital, therefore, to the safety of the
Here we come to the great Wilsonian fallacy that may yet destroy the Bush
presidency. He has embraced the nonsense that unless Iraq is free, America is
unsafe. But Iraq has never been free – yet, America has almost always been
safe and secure.
The president calls failure in Iraq unthinkable. But the alternative may be an
open-ended war the American people never signed on to, and, if present polls
are any indication, may not be willing to support indefinitely.
Iraq is not Vietnam, but, for President Bush, there are troubling similarities
to other unhappy moments in American history. Truman's presidency was broken
by the "no-win war" in Korea. LBJ's presidency was broken by his failure to
"win or get out" of Vietnam.
What does a president do if he believes a war is just and necessary, but the
people come to believe it is the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong
time, with the wrong enemy?
We are not at that point yet, but we are getting there. And President Bush had
best begin to think the unthinkable.
© 2004 Creators
for printable version.
Click here for
Daily Column Archives