"We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield." That's from George Orwell's 1946 essay "In Front of Your Nose." It seems especially relevant right now, as we survey the wreckage of America's Iraq adventure.
Tomorrow a year will have passed since George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" carrier landing. Throughout that year — right up to the surge in violence this month — administration officials assured us that things were going well in Iraq. Living standards, they said, were steadily improving. The resistance, they insisted, consisted of a handful of dead-enders aided by a few foreign infiltrators — and each lull in attacks brought pronouncements that the campaign against the insurgents had turned the corner.
So they lied to us; what else is new? But there's more at stake here than the administration's credibility. The official story line portrayed a virtuous circle of nation-building, one that could eventually lead to a democratic Iraq, allied with the U.S. In fact, we seem to be faced with a vicious circle, in which a deteriorating security situation undermines reconstruction, and the lack of material progress adds to popular discontent. Can this situation be saved?
Even among harsh critics of the administration's Iraq policy, the usual view is that we have to finish the job. You've heard the arguments: We broke it; we bought it. We can't cut and run. We have to stay the course.
I understand the appeal of those arguments. But I'm worried about the arithmetic.
All the information I've been able to get my hands on indicates that the security situation in Iraq is really, really bad. It's not a good sign when, a year into an occupation, the occupying army sends for more tanks. Western civilians have retreated to armed enclaves. U.S. forces are strong enough to defend those enclaves, and probably strong enough to keep essential supplies flowing. But we don't have remotely enough troops to turn the vicious circle around. The Iraqi forces that were supposed to fill the security gap collapsed — or turned against us — at the first sign of trouble.
And all of the proposals one hears for resolving this ugly situation seem to be either impractical or far behind the curve.
Some say we should send more troops. But the U.S. military doesn't have more troops to send, unless it resorts to extreme measures, like withdrawing a large part of the forces currently in South Korea. Did I mention that North Korea is building nuclear weapons, and may already have eight?
Others say we should seek more support from other countries. There may once have been a time — say, last summer — when the U.S. could have struck a deal: by ceding a lot of authority to the U.N., we might have been able to persuade countries with large armies, like India, to contribute large numbers of peacekeeping troops. But it's hard to imagine that anyone will now send significant forces into the Iraqi cauldron.
Some pin their hopes on a political solution: they believe that violence will subside if the U.N. is allowed to appoint a caretaker government that Iraqis don't view as a U.S. puppet.
Let's hope they're right. But bear in mind that right now the U.S. is still planning to hand over "sovereignty" to a body, yet to be named, that will have hardly any power at all. For practical purposes, the U.S. ambassador will be running the country. Americans may believe that everything will change on June 30, but Iraqis are unlikely to be fooled. And by the way, much of the Arab world believes that we've been committing war crimes in Falluja.
I don't have a plan for Iraq. I strongly suspect, however, that all the plans you hear now are irrelevant. If America's leaders hadn't made so many bad decisions, they might have had a chance to shape Iraq to their liking. But that window closed many months ago.
Originally published in The New York Times, 4.30.04