Foreign Affairs

Befuddled Superpower

"For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?"

On reading the Washington Post story by Robin Wright, "Bush Initiates Iraq Policy Review Separate from Baker’s Group," about a new internal review of U.S. war policy, St. Paul’s words return to mind.

Here we are, longer in this war in Mesopotamia than America fought in World War I or World War II against Germany; yet, consider what our commander in chief — a successor to war presidents Lincoln, Wilson and FDR — is even now seeking to discover.

"The president," said an anonymous White House official, "has asked the national security agencies to assess the situation in Iraq, review the options and recommend the best way forward. … The president indicated Monday that he is interested in hearing interesting ideas both within the administration and from the Baker-Hamilton commission."

So critical is this review that Condi Rice postponed her departure for the Asia-Pacific summit to participate. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told the Post the secretary has been "doing a lot of thinking" about Iraq over the last two months.

Thinking about what? Replied McCormack:

"The primary focus is on the State Department role in Iraq and are we pursuing the proper policies, are we asking the right questions, are we seeking the right objectives, are we using the right means to achieve these objectives, following the right strategy and tactics?"

Excuse me, but this sounds like some lost soul crying in a wilderness. Yet it is the voice of the foreign ministry of the world’s last superpower in the fourth year of a war to decide the fate and future of the entire Middle East.

Should not these questions have been asked, and answered with finality, by our war leaders before they marched us up to Baghdad? Are these not the questions a Democratic Senate should have asked Don Rumsfeld and Colin Powell before they gave Bush a blank check for war?

Incredible. The U.S. government is tasking the NSC, CIA, State and Defense to bring forward new ideas to extract us, without defeat, from a war into which we have been plunged by the elected leaders of that same government.

How can the American people have confidence in war leaders who still do not know how best to fight, win or end this war, but must seek guidance from the bureaucracy?

Whatever is said about Eisenhower and Nixon, both came in with clear ideas of how they intended to extricate us from unpopular wars. Both did so and won landslide re-elections. Both set out a clear goal, made the necessary military and diplomatic moves, and took the political heat. Apparently, our present war leaders, four years into the war, have no policy to win or end this war.

They are throwing up questions, asking advice, pleading for ideas, begging for answers. Even the U.S. joint chiefs of staff have joined in the hunt.

"One component of the larger (review) effort is likely to be a military review initiated in mid-September by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff," writes Wright. "His assessment of anti-terrorism efforts, with a core focus on Iraq, includes 16 top commanders meeting daily to brainstorm on questions such as: ‘Where are we going? What are we trying to do? Are we going to get there this way?’"

Is this not disconcerting? The most experienced warriors of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are sitting around every day, asking one another: "Where are we going? What we are we trying to do?"

Can one imagine Douglas MacArthur, Chester Nimitz, "Bull" Halsey and Curtis LeMay sitting around day after day in Honolulu, asking each other: "Where are we going? What are we trying to do?"

A senior defense official provided added guidance: "Nothing is off the table. They are looking at the whole spectrum of less forces, more forces."

This remark suggests the U.S. joint chiefs are open to all options, including defeat. For once U.S. forces begin to pull out of a war that is far from being won, we risk losing that war.

Heretofore, President Bush had said America’s goal is "victory" and that we will not depart until it is achieved. By victory, he has meant eradication of al-Qaida in Iraq, defeat of the insurgency and an Iraq on America’s side in the war on terror.

What these strategic reviews suggest is that not only do our leaders not know how to achieve "victory," they are no longer sure it is worth the cost.

What these strategic reviews also suggest is that George Bush, the defiant leader atop the pile of rubble at the World Trade Center, George Bush "The Decider," George Bush the resolute war chief who will stay the course in Iraq if only Laura and Barney are still with him, has vacated the White House.

In his stead sits a president asking questions, seeking ideas, searching for answers. If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

Sign Up