Napoleon in the White House

The standard right-wing myth when it comes to Vietnam is that “the politicians” sold out the military and lost a war that could have been won. Civilian interference with the strategy and tactics employed by military professionals led to U.S withdrawal from Vietnam, which was not a defeat so much as a victory aborted by subversives on the home front. Or so the story goes.

While this idea is refuted by the facts – it wasn’t for nothing that military experts of the time warned against getting involved in a war on the Asian landmass – at least it represents an attempt to make a rational argument, which is that the conduct of a war is best left to the professionals. In our post-9/11 Bizarro World reality, however, that stance has been completely inverted. Instead of abhorring civilian interference in the military, the neocons are emphatically in favor of it. They emphasized from the very beginning of the Iraq debate that the civilians knew best, and that the generals – by casting doubts on the White House’s rosy scenario – were interfering with policymaking decisions.

When senior military figures, both active and retired, began to voice reservations about the wisdom of invading and occupying Iraq, the neocons raised a hue and cry about the need to maintain civilian control of the military. How dare these generals meddle in politics! Get them back to their barracks and out of the public square! One of their number even wrote an entire book making the case for presidential direction of wartime military strategy, citing as models the neocon holy trinity: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.

President Bush read the book over his 2002 summer vacation, and from all indications he has taken it to heart. In spite of what the Washington Post describes as the “unanimous” opinion of the joint chiefs of staff, Bush is determined to inject a “surge” of troops into Iraq to stabilize – and perhaps save – what the Baker-Hamilton report [.pdf] characterized as a “grave and deteriorating” situation:

“The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.”

When our president looks in the mirror, whom does he see? Lincoln? FDR? Churchill? Napoleon is more like it. Our expedition to Iraq bears a striking resemblance to the Little Corporal‘s march on Russia – or, perhaps, Hitler’s version of the same mistake. Both were calamitous for the invaders, bringing to mind newly sworn-in Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ testimony in front of a Senate committee:

“As the president has made clear, we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come.”

However one defines it, our mission in Iraq is already a clear failure: the question is, will we let this calamity morph into a cataclysm of regional and even global scope, or will we succeed in isolating and containing the disaster?

There are degrees of calamity, and the one about to be inflicted on us by our Napoleon in the White House is worse than it has to be. There is no way to avoid the consequences of having invaded Iraq in the first place: the breakup of the Iraqi state, the rising influence of Iran, the civil war and horrific loss of life. There is, however, an opportunity to minimize our losses and those of the long-suffering Iraqi people, and that is by minimizing our troop presence rather than increasing it.

However, when it comes to our deluded leaders, who see themselves as world-historical figures, no price is too high to pay for their legacy as conquering heroes. They will see their vision of the world confirmed even if it leads to our utter ruination. If the military is breaking, the people are rebelling, and the country is sliding into bankruptcy, then that’s a small price to pay for fulfilling our role as the supreme arbiter of world affairs – isn’t it? The direr the consequences, the more the neocons see their own struggle as a heroic endeavor undertaken against overwhelming odds. In the end, it isn’t about American interests, or the future of the Middle East – it’s all about them, and their rotten place in history.

Next to these grandiose pretensions, however, the everyday reality of our policy on the ground in Iraq underscores the sheer corruption at the heart of our mission. A perfect example: the other day an Iranian-American, Ayham Samarrai – a former minister of electricity charged with absconding with $1.5 billion in Iraqi government funds – was broken out of an Iraqi jail:

“According to Judge Radhi Radhi, Iraq’s top anticorruption official, two GMC vehicles belonging to an American security company arrived at the Samarrai’s jailhouse Sunday afternoon, intimidated the police officers guarding the site and took the suspect away without firing a shot.”

Whatever tawdry corruption underlies this incident – and who knows what kind of cover-up is being attempted in this case? – it underscores the harsh reality of Iraq’s ongoing slide into Hobbesian anarchy. The lawlessness that has overcome Iraq and its fledgling government has its source not in the insurgency – which is limited to the Sunni Triangle – and not in the Shi’ite militias (which do keep a kind of order, albeit a bloodstained, sectarian one) – but in the Americans, who run the country as if it were a conquered province. Too bad for them it doesn’t want to stay conquered…

Make no mistake about it: a “surge” in troop numbers and a correspondingly more aggressive stance will only exacerbate the crisis and increase the force of the “blowback” effect. There is only one rational way forward, and that is to put this disaster behind us. The U.S. must begin an orderly yet rapid retreat from an increasingly untenable position. We are fast approaching a “Saigon moment,” when a spectacular display of our vulnerability – like the 1983 destruction of the Beirut barracks, in which 241 Marines were killed by a suicide bomber – signals the utter futility of continuing this wrongheaded war. The so-called Green Zone sits smack dab in the middle of war-torn Baghdad as a symbol of America’s ostensible invincibility and undoubted imperial arrogance: can a more inviting target be imagined?

Before some singular disaster further erodes America’s prestige around the world, and our looming defeat becomes an undeniable reality, let’s get out while the getting is good.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].