All the President's Men

Many nursery rhymes began as coded verse that once circulated among the dissenting populace under autocratic rulers. A number of famous verses date to the Tudor monarchy. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary satirizes Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), her garden a veiled reference to the graveyards where Protestant martyrs lay. Humpty Dumpty is a commentary on the fall from power of Henry VIII’s great chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, in 1523, leading to his arrest for high treason in 1530. Its concluding verse is a cautionary lesson about the limits of power for aspiring statesmen who imagine they can make reality conform to their aspirations: All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty back together again. Whether a career or a policy is at stake, when serious political failure comes, it is next to impossible to recover.

In the place of Humpty Dumpty, we might well substitute the statue (or the person) of Saddam Hussein, pulled down after the U.S. capture of Baghdad in 2003, and the uncontrollable chaos that has ensued since. As the nation assesses President Bush’s latest effort to salvage the administration’s tragic misadventure in Iraq, the lesson of Humpty Dumpty is one we wish the president and those in power around him had learned in the nursery. In Iraq, the United States now faces the limits of its power to shape events. Policymakers and pundits who scorned critics for their reality-based analyses (The New York Times Magazine, 10/17/04) are now confronted with the unimagined consequences of their reality-shaping fantasies.

Dynamics internal to Iraqi society make it nigh on impossible for the United States to prevail. The ascent of the Shiites to power, the resistance of the Sunni, the diabolical meddling of Al Qaeda, the growth of the militias, the cycles of atrocity and revenge make it impossible for a mere 20,000 additional troops to make a significant difference, especially given the 10-month window the president has assigned for the Iraqi government to take responsibility for security in all the country’s provinces. Furthermore, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has observed, the U.S. engagement in Iraq is on the wrong side of history, a colonial war in a postcolonial age.


Those are the obstacles we face on the Iraqi side. On the American side, there is, first, the attrition of the military. The seven additional brigades to be assigned to Iraq are not fresh reserves. They are men and women whose time in Iraq will be extended once again or whose rotation home will be cut short, and all these units lack sufficient equipment. Even the expansion of the Army and Marine Corps announced by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will not consist of new recruits, but of National Guard and Reserve members whose liability to be called up for overseas assignments will be expanded. Add to this the impatience of the American public voiced in the last election and in plummeting poll numbers for the president’s policy, and you have an initiative destined for failure. When a democratic nation goes to war, public support is a sine qua non for success.

One aspect of the president’s policy shows how much the administration remains immune to realitynamely, the threat of expanding the conflict to include Iran. So determined is the administration to impose its will rather than face reality, that it appears prepared to lead us over a precipice into a regional conflict. Shortly before President Bush’s speech, the Navy dispatched an additional task force to the Persian Gulf. The day following the speech, U.S. troops invaded the Iranian consulate in Irbil and arrested six Iranian nationals. In addition, the government blocked a transaction from a major Iranian bank. No doubt, Iran is meddling in Iraq, and measures need to be taken to curtail its interference. But embroiling the United States in a broader war is the last thing the overstretched military needs.

Iran has a population four times that of Iraq, and it could more than match the United States surge with waves of mujahadeen who would easily entangle and exhaust coalition forces. In addition, Iran has the capacity to block oil traffic in the Persian Gulf and send the petromarket into chaos. The United States certainly has the muscle to do great damage to Iran, but only at an unacceptably high price. What is needed in Iraq is more than added troop strength. When fielding insufficient forces, a good leader reaches for a settlement. In the Persian Gulf, as the Iraq Study Group proposed, the United States should be laying the diplomatic groundwork for a regional peace settlement. By now, the lessons of Humpty Dumpty should be clear to all.

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