Current affairs

Here is a long, wonkish analysis of the Iraq mess by somebody who believes that the project could have worked but has become a disaster. It is worth reading if for no other reason than it highlights the sheer difficulty of building a civil society in the wake of a fallen tyrant.

A major problem: The administration refused to think the Iraq project would be difficult. To prepare for difficulty would have been to admit that it was going to be difficult. In a sense, they were politically smart: Difficulty doesn't sell well to the American people. It had to be simple or it was no go from the start.

Yet, after it became difficult, it has taken a long time for reality to sink in. I don't know if it ever has. I don't think a paltry 20,000 troops is going to make much of a difference, and I really don't think it wise to send them in until there is a firm strategy in place, a tangible goal, a long-term plan.

Having arrived at our present position through a combination of bad decisions and mistaken assumptions, what to do now? Say the election was tomorrow and a new president were elected. What should he or she do?

Pray hard.

Nixon thought he knew how to win in Vietnam. We know how that ended. And believe me, if anybody would have been capable of pulling the rabbit out of the hat, it would have been Nixon. Devious Dick was no dummy. But the problem stymied him. And his attempts to solve it killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, a brutal fact we have never properly faced.

I keep thinking of Lyndon Johnson. Recently released tapes show that he knew early on that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but he just plain didn't know how to get out of it. The war destroyed him. After he left office, he took up smoking and started drinking whiskey by the case until he finally died, by his own slow hand.

George Bush said the other day that he's sleeping a lot better than people might imagine. That's more than a little odd. We know Roosevelt worked himself to death winning World War II. Lincoln agonized nightly over the Civil War. Johnson and Nixon, formidable minds both, wrestled with war day and night.

Even the great warrior Winston Churchill, who relished war more than one might think seemly, was tortured by its consequences. "Have we become monsters?" he yelled, upon watching a newsreel of Allied fire-bombing of civilian Dresden, a city already stripped by Hitler of all fighting-age men.

The struggles of the Great Ones teach us a valuable lesson: Informed certainty, leavened by doubt and introspection, can, with time, solve knotty problems. But blithe certainty which angrily fends off contrary facts is a recipe for failure.