Roger Morris: Commentary on the President's Speech


Reflections on Widening the War

by Roger Morris

One of the books in
the backdrop of the White House Library must have been on quantum
physics. As President George W. Bush stood awkwardly at his podium
Wednesday night, nervously drawing breaths at each sentence as he began
his long-awaited speech Iraq, Washington’s parallel universes seemed to
crowd the room.

I used
to go to that library often, fleeing the commotion of another
stationary policy. It was 1969. My universe was the National Security
Council staff under then-President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry
Kissinger. We were fresh from another election in which America voted
to end a war. Yet in another abhorrence of defeat, the familiar lure of
some redeeming if only cosmetic victory, we met in secret to plan
another escalation. “I can’t believe,” Kissinger told us, “that a
fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” As
we plotted a massive blow - ­the carpet bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong
that happened three years later - ­the war America voted to end was
only half over, with only half the dead whose names would fill the long
black wall of Washington’s Vietnam Memorial. 

were other universes then, too. I sat across from the angry deflecting
bravado of another military unable to admit defeat, impotence and its
own ample share in the common disaster, officers who became mentors of
our puerile power point generals of Mesopotamia. After I resigned from
the White House over the invasion of Cambodia, I saw another universe
of careerism, of craven equivocation in a Democratic opposition ever
cowed by Republican chauvinism. I sat then across from maimed Vietnam
veterans come to Capitol Hill to scream and murmur for peace, their
bodies shaking in rage yet legs and arms strangely still, frozen in
paralysis. Iraq is not Vietnam. Not just in the far wider geo-political
ruin, but in sheer blind repetition of behavior expecting a different
result, a mark of madness in nations as in individuals, it is worse.

universes around Mr. Bush’s speech still tell the story. There is his,
a feast for future biographers. At one of the most challenging moments
in history, we cheered, and choose again, the most ill-equipped
president and advisors of the most tragically uninformed and
desperately held presumption. When those who ruled as his regents, Vice
President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, were
dominating the Ford Administration and seeding much of today’s calamity
three decades ago in their own universes of ambition, twenty-nine
year-old George W. Bush, the lineage’s least fortunate son, was in
Midland, Texas, partying heartily and scrounging for some role on the
rusty panhandle fringes of the oil business.

the others: In its plush offices, the American Enterprise Institute, so
typical of Washington’s think tank warriors so near power, so far from
Baghdad and the consequences of their prolix urgings to invade and
surge, ­and now with many Neo-Cons venomously jumping ship, nearly the
last of that relentlessly deficient claque, or any other constituency,
to tell Mr. Bush what all failed politicians hope to hear, that he
still has a chance to retrieve history.

Or the
Democrats with their “symbolic” but hardly substantive rejection of
escalation, calculating as usual that to not to commit, to await
disaster without obvious complicity, will protect tenure in the Capital
if not lives in battle. Or the anti-war critics who in symmetry often
match the Democrats in cravenness and Mr. Bush in their self-delusion
(about Democrats), and who now face the choice of mounting their own
insurgency, their own saving escalation. Not least (though least it is
for many) the universe of ordinary soldiers and their families, small
hometowns and military post housing, overcrowded hospitals and
sleepless nights so far from richly carpeted think tanks, interviews of
presidential hopefuls in the stately Capitol Rotunda, or the muted,
faux-manly tones of White House briefings. The ordinary universe can
meet those others in a sense, of course­, the parallel lines of a
soldier's life and the policy made by others with sleek impunity
converging in a burst of blood in Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala.

are no good options in Iraq, the President admitted between his lines.
But that is not because Syria and Iran are hostile, or because
Washington is not talking to them (one has to wonder what the
demonstrably inept diplomats of this regime could be trusted to say to
them). Nor because 21,000 or 40,000 more U.S. troops cannot meet even
the Pentagon’s optimistic ratios to “clear and hold.” No, the war was
lost before it began, in the simple ancient equation of power. In the
overthrow of Ba’athist rule, its replacement by an armed, vengeful Shia
majority (vengeance the U.S. fed by its covert installation and support
of Saddam’s tyranny), all amid a politically ignorant, plundering and
inevitably blundering occupation, the nightmare of Iraq and the chaos
following a U.S. withdrawal have been as predictable as anything in
world politics. Depending, that is, on one’s universe.

hardly matters whether Mr. Bush’s speech is to salvage some “victory,”
or is mere cover for defeat and retreat. There in the library the
President had to admit Iraq will bleed on, and America with it.
Unspoken, an attack on Iran by Israel or the U.S. hovered like a
leering ghost over the “way forward.” And the tortured universe of
Palestine, the bondage of America to Israel’s tragedy, waits beyond as
it has for sixty years.

may attribute this persistent folly of policy, these universes, not
simply to ignorance or our irremediable bipartisan provincialism, but
to a deeper failure of sensibility, warriors afraid to leap beyond
their worlds, where empathy must war with distaste and fear. There will
surely be more awkward White House speeches. Having been there, I can
tell you that the occupants do not really read the books in the
library, and we do not do well with lost wars, at home or abroad. We
will not soon bridge those universes so comfortably, fiercely,
fearfully separate.

Morris, a Senior Fellow for the Green Institute, served on the Senior
Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and
Nixon, is an award-winning historian and author of several books on
American politics and foreign policy. His latest book, Shadows of the
Eagle, a history of US covert intervention and policy in the Middle
East and South Asia, will be published by Alfred Knopf in 2007