Georgie Anne Geyer
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This week marks the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, and the newspapers and TV are filled with sad, half-hearted analyses of this unnecessary "war of man's choice."
We needed more "boots" on the ground (and, one assumes, also in the air and on the sea); we should have kept the Iraqi army together and then the people would have loved us; we should have done something (anything!) about those pesky Iranians, who unfortunately are the cousins of Iraqi Shiites, who oddly prefer relatives to us. That's what we hear.
But the underlying truth, the big truth of the Iraq war, seems still to elude us. It is not that our military and politicians choose to ignore this "basic" of modern warfare; it is that they (God help America!) still don't understand it. There was no way to win this war.
When I served as a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Daily News in Vietnam in 1967, '68 and later in '70 and '71, it didn't take me long to figure out that we were going to lose -- and why. The reason was childishly simple: The intentions of the North Vietnamese were infinite, while ours were finite.
It was their country, their roots, their long, guerrilla-guided fight against the French, who we had, for reasons that still evade any rational explanation, chosen to replace. They would outlast us, and send us and our expensive games packing, and they did. And we would actually get angry that they "tricked" us by not coming out in the field of battle and losing.
They had thousands of years of gnarled, but real, roots in the conflict. How could we possibly match that as we flew in so confidently to clean up things a bit?
And we still didn't start teaching counterinsurgency in our military academies until this year, when Gen. David Petraeus, a splendid man for conventional wars, suddenly put out a counterinsurgency booklet for our forces. How avant!
But focus on what the historians say: In the 20th and, until now, 21st centuries, there has not been one national or local insurgency, employing guerrilla or now what is fashionably called asymmetric warfare, that has been defeated by a major power. Not one. Some historians argue that the Malaysian civil war in the 1940s and '50s was "won" by the British colonialists, but that was actually a special case. More real was the extraordinary picture of French Gen. Charles de Gaulle, not exactly a wuss, retreating from "French" Algeria.
My old friend Barry Zorthian, who was the official American spokesman in Vietnam and beloved by journalists, told me last week he wrote a memo to the commanding generals in 1968, outlining all the problems there -- and that they were virtually a mirror image of Iraq today. Then he told me sadly, "We could have had the same deal with the North Vietnamese in 1968 that we got five years later -- only in those five years, 25,000 Americans died."
But is the experience in Vietnam in any real way equal to the experience in Iraq? As a matter of fact, in many ways, yes.
The Iraqis are still suffering from 500 years of Ottoman colonialism, then the pesky British (will they never go home and stay?), and always the Iranians conspiratorial presence. While I met many Iraqis I liked during my eight trips to Iraq in the '70s and '80s, when I interviewed Saddam Hussein and his whole gang, it didn't take a Margaret Mead to see that these were probably the most violent people in the world.
Their great cities -- Babylon, Ur, Nineveh, Hatra -- all had been destroyed by conquest and by environment fatigue. Their religions -- Sunni and Shiia Islam, plus many sects -- had been at war internally for 900 years. They distrust everyone, particularly foreigners, who have not historically made a favorable impression upon them, and they are some of the most vicious fighters in the world.
They are not "just like us and want the same things for their children" (George W.'s favorite, and ignorant, refrain) and never, ever, could be, given their brutal history.
At this moment, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has stood against this war for the same reasons as I and other journalists like Arnaud de Borchgrave, Steve Chapman, Seymour Hersh, Trudy Rubin and a few brave others have, has written a brilliant book about our involvement in Iraq, "Second Chance."
The Iraq war, he said in appearances on the book, has led to a "calamitous image of American global standing. Fifteen years after we became the only superpower, according to the new BBC worldwide poll, the three lowest countries in opinion are Israel, Iran and the U.S. We are bogged down, and Iran has benefited geopolitically. There is an increasing terrorist threat to the U.S. and intensified hatred of us.
"We cannot be acting like an imperial power in a post-imperial age or a colonial power in a post-colonial age."
He then gave grades to the last three presidents. To the first President Bush, he gave a solid B for his policy regarding freeing Eastern Europe and acting with resolution in the Middle East; but George H.W. Bush did not follow up on his potential. To Bill Clinton he gave only a C because, while Clinton was full of good intentions, his whole administration was self-indulgent. To George W. Bush he gave an F: "What this president has done to America in the world is unconscionable."