Since I’ve been spending so much time in recent months reading and writing about President George W. Bush, his neoconservative advisers, and the mess in Iraq, I decided to take some time off these current topics and read a very well-written and well-researched life history of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton.
But I had to read only a few pages of the massive biography by Ron Chernow (Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Books, 2004) before I was transported from the late 18th century to the start of the 21st century, to Bush, the neocons, and Iraq.
Here is how Hamilton, in an impressive and shrewd insight into the psychology of power, described the futile efforts by Britain’s then-prime minister, Lord North, to suppress the insurgency by the American colonists against the occupying imperial power:
“The premier has advanced too far to recede with safety; he is deeply interested to execute his purpose, if possible in common life, to retract an error even in the beginning is not an easy task. Perseverance confirms us in it and rivets the difficulty to this we may add that disappointment and opposition inflame the minds of men and attach them still more to their mistakes.”
As Hamilton saw it, the punitive measures taken by the British could not defeat the scrappy and opportunistic strategy pursued by the insurgents. “The circumstances of our country put in our power to evade a pitched battle,” Hamilton advised his American compatriots. “It will be better policy to harass and exhaust the soldiery by frequent skirmishes and incursions than to take the open field with them, by which means they would have the full benefit of their superior regularity and skills.”
We know how the American Revolution ended. The British continued to dig themselves into a deep hole from which they were able to extract themselves only after a long and costly war. It’s not surprising that historian Barbara Tuchman in her classic work The March of Folly illustrated the tendency of governments to act stubbornly and perversely against their own interests by using the loss of the American colonies by the British as a case study.
What was amazing about the entire situation was that the British Parliament had many opportunities to defuse the situation before independence became a rallying cry of the Americans. Out of ignorance and arrogance, and despite the warnings and advice of any number of competent men on both sides of the Atlantic, the British leaders refused to do so, and thus the colonies were lost.
Indeed, as the Bush administration’s effort to “stay the course” in Iraq is demonstrating once again, to “retract an error even in the beginning is not an easy task” and the disappointments that the administration has been experiencing in Iraq almost on a daily basis as well as the growing opposition to the war at home only seems to “inflame the minds” of Bush and his aides and “attach them still more to their mistakes.”
Indeed, amid turmoil in Washington over Iraq and a dramatic erosion in the support of the American people, Bush vowed over the weekend that “we will stay in the fight” until victory in Iraq, rejecting critics’ calls for a troop pullout timetable and insisting that “progress” was being made in Baghdad.
Bush’s remarks amounted to a response to one of the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, who urged the administration last Thursday to pull out U.S. forces as soon as it could be done safely, estimating that it would take about six months. At the same time, there were also growing indications that many Republican lawmakers have lost their confidence in the administration’s strategy in Iraq and were worried that the rising costs of the war, in terms of life and money, would make it difficult for them to win reelection in the mid-term congressional elections next year.
One leading Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam War veteran, has blasted the administration’s policies in Iraq and has called on the White House to admit its mistakes there and take steps to retract them.
Hagel, it should be noted, is also considering running for the White House in 2008, and he seems to believe that the antiwar stand could help him strengthen his political and electoral base.
Murtha was dismissed by the White House as a liberal like Fahrenheit 911 director Michael Moore. But if anything, Murtha projects all the characteristics of a public figure with whom voters in red states should fall in love: a conservative nationalist and war hero who feels most comfortable drinking beer with a bunch of swearing blue-collar workers.
That someone like him is willing to challenge War President Bush and call for a withdrawal from Iraq reflects the political problems that the White House could face in the coming months.
“Iraq can’t be won militarily. It’s got to be won politically,” Murtha told CNN.
But Bush and his aides continue to describe Iraq as a pivotal battle in the war against Islamic radicals who, they say, want to use Iraq as a launching pad toward a totalitarian empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia.
Moreover, pointing to the coming Iraqi elections in December, Bush insisted that “Iraq is making amazing progress from the days of being under the thumb of a brutal dictator.” But that is clearly not the view of the American people and large segments of the political elites.
A CNN/USA Today Gallup poll last week said 63 percent of Americans oppose Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, and 52 percent say troops should be pulled out now or within 12 months. Moreover, most Americans now believe that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake.
Erosion in Support
At the same time, a poll conducted by Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that most Americans think the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”
This consensus runs very much contrary to the Bush administration’s rationale for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq and the Middle East: the need to spread freedom and democracy in the region.
Some would argue that this erosion in public support for the war and the political concerns in Washington not to mention the lack of international backing for the project (Korea and Italy are planning to withdraw their troops from Iraq) should force Bush to retract the Iraq error and change course.
He won’t. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have “advanced too far to recede with safety.” They know that their historical “legacy” is tied to the war in Iraq and that to withdraw from that country would be an admission that they failed big time. So as Hamilton would have predicted, they prefer to continue muddling through in Iraq for another three years, even if that means leaving a mess in Iraq to the next president, even if that means the next president is a Democrat.
Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.