"Mess," "fiasco," "disaster," "blunder," and "catastrophe."
Fill in the blanks with almost any stock noun of gloom these days when speaking about Iraq.
For finger-in-the-wind politicians, writing off Iraq is mere throat-clearing before moving on to any discussion of immigration reform or taxes. For ahead-of-the-curve pundits, starting out with "The failure in Iraq" is like opening their browser before daily pontificating. No need of explanation or empiricism, one just gets things out of the way at the very beginning with our new postmodern ritual.
Usually the more vehemently one used to clamor for the idea of removing Saddam Hussein — such as a Sen. Harry Reid or an Andrew Sullivan — the more now they are likely to use superlatives in damning the enterprise.
That there are 160,000 Americans — at the moment in an enormous offensive against al Qaeda — fighting to save Iraqi democracy means little, as evocation of pullouts, withdrawals, and timetables is mixed in with the language of defeat, despair, and finger-pointing.
That the war has morphed once again into one largely against al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists is lost on critics. All the old bogeymen — Ashcroft, Bremmer, Feith, Libby, Pearl, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz — are gone. But the media and opposition searches for new ones to blame for a policy they largely once endorsed. Witness the new slurring of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Pace as incompetent and Gen. Petraeus — our most innovative commander in a generation — as less than candid and not in touch with operations under his command.
But then few have offered any consistent policy of what we are to do after Iraq. Once again generalities — best mouthed by John Edwards — about multilateralism, restoring American popularity abroad, working with allies — are thrown out, as if the world will be safer and more harmonious once we return to some mythical Democratic past. By default that could only mean something akin to the foreign policy of our last two such presidents, Messrs. Carter and Clinton.
Have we gone mad in our amnesia about that awful past? The epithet "the Great Satan" was coined out of hatred for the diplomatic efforts of Jimmy Carter. Do we want Andrew Young back praising the humanitarianism of Khomeini?
Bin Laden started out his 1996 promise to slaughter Americans with the warning to a sober and judicious Secretary of Defense Perry "I say to you William…" — in furor over the basing of American troops in Saudi Arabia.
Al Gore weighed in on the aftermath of the Gulf War by damning the senior Bush — but for doing too little, allowing Saddam to stay in power, and proceed to acquire nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction.
Just as journalists, generals, and politicians rush to get into print another tell-all, I-know-the-answers book about the "disaster" in Iraq, so too in the 1990s the mini-Middle East publishing industry used to be devoted to equally furious attacks on realism, neo-isolation, and cynicism of Republicans and conservatives for an array of sins — sacrificing the Kurds and Shiites, not supporting Democratic reformers abroad, leaving Saddam in power, failing to prod Gulf sheikdoms to liberalize, cynically prodding on the Iran-Iraq war, etc.
What is lost, then, in the present pre-election hysteria and the repositioning on Iraq, is that there were never any good American choices in the Middle East. The present ones in Iraq and Afghanistan came about only from 9/11 and a general consensus that the failures of the past had led to that mass murder — and thus a new course of action was needed to replace both the liberal appeasement and conservative realism that had worked in the interest of bin Ladenism.
Legitimate debate is necessary about the mistakes in Iraq, as it is about the blunders of every war. But before writing off Iraq as lost, unnecessary, or a result of some such conspiracy, we had better ask ourselves whether a return to the sermonizing of Carterism or Clintonian diplomacy by focus group and straw polls — or even cynical horse-trading of Jim Baker — is what we really want.
So here are questions to ponder as reactionaries yearn for a pre-Bush past. Imagine: One of the various foiled terrorist plots — a Fort Dix slaughter, a JFK airport attack, or the suicide teams ABC News claims are headed our way from Afghanistan — succeeds after 2008. Thousands of Americans die.
What does President Clinton or Obama do? Draft a tough federal indictment? Ask for a U.N. resolution condemning such violence? Count on a unified response with NATO, battle-seasoned after its heroic offensives in Afghanistan? Hope for help from the EU rapid-response force? Bomb the source where the jihadists trained (Gaza?, Pakistan? Syria? Iran?) — but only from 30,000 feet, and, as in 1998, without U.N. or congressional approval? Work with the Saudis and Egyptians and Mr. Abbas to curb such atypical zealots? Have John Edwards trot the globe to use his courtroom flair to win over allies?