Ignoring History In Iraq

By George F. Will

The Washungton Post

Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page A19

On Oct. 23, just 10 days before the election, the war in Iraq will have lasted as long as the 584-day U.S. involvement in World War I, from the April 6, 1917, declaration of war to the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice. And probably in late September or early October the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq will pass 1,000.

The war already has lasted longer than the Spanish-American War (230 days), and on Dec. 9, 42 days before the next president is inaugurated, the war will be longer than was the war with Mexico (630 days). It will not last as long as the war against Philippine insurgents (4,000 U.S. and 200,000 Philippine dead) that followed U.S. annexation and festered intermittently for 14 years. The annexation was defended in 1901 by the president of Princeton University:

"The East is to be opened and transformed, whether we will it or not; the standards of the West are to be imposed upon it; nations and peoples who have stood still the centuries through are to be quickened and to be made part of the universal world of commerce and of ideas."

Such thinking was already a U.S. tradition. In 1846, on the eve of the war with Mexico, a New York poet, whose optimism did not exceed the Polk administration's, said that Mexicans would be chanting, "The Saxons are coming; our freedom is nigh." But "Death to the Gringos" is what Mexican schoolchildren were chanting in April 1914, in response to President Woodrow Wilson's dispatch of U.S. troops to Mexico, pursuant to his belief that "every nation of the world needs to be drawn into the tutelage of America." Yet by 1918, regarding post-revolution Russia, he declared:

"My policy regarding Russia is very similar to my Mexican policy. I believe in letting them work out their own salvation, even though they wallow in anarchy for a while."

These excavations from America's rhetorical record are from John Judis's new book, "The Folly of Empire," a sobering read during Iraq's current wallow. Iraq's condition is not quite anarchy, but it does point to a double peril of producing democracy.

Democracy, loosely -- very loosely -- defined as government responsive to gusts of public passions, might fail. Or it might succeed ruinously. A government that is all sail and no anchor might produce popular choices that lead through anarchy to civil war, or national fragmentation, or fragmentation forestalled by Bonapartism, Francoism or some other variant of authoritarianism.

The Bush campaign is pelting John Kerry with dead cats because of his promise to wage a more "sensitive" war on terrorism -- Democrats tend to think in the vocabulary of the therapeutic society and its "caring professions." But the Bush administration is simultaneously struggling to balance the competing imperatives of economizing American lives and waging a war sensitive to the religious sensibilities at stake in the struggle for control of Najaf.

In all this, the concept of sovereignty is being pounded shapeless. Preemptive war was waged, in part, to notify enemies of the United States that U.S. sovereignty could not be paralyzed by world opinion or the noncooperation of international institutions. And one measure of progress in Iraq was the June 28 transfer of sovereignty.

But in a New York Times story from Najaf, readers learn, regarding the problem of Moqtada Sadr and his militia, that a Marine spokesman says, "We'll continue operations as the prime minister [Ayad Allawi] sees fit." And readers learn that U.S. commanders "curbed a broader national amnesty proposal announced by Dr. Allawi earlier this week, limiting its terms to exclude any rebels who have taken part in actions killing or wounding American troops."

So does sovereignty reside with the prime minister whose will evidently commands U.S. commanders? Or with those commanders who curb the prime minister's will?

A house so divided cannot stand. If it is the prime minister's will, or that of Iraq's embryonic democratic institutions, to conduct with insurgent factions negotiations that strip the Iraqi state of an essential attribute of statehood -- a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence -- the U.S. presence will become untenable.

Untenable even before what may be coming before November: an Iraqi version of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive of 1968. To say that the coming offensive will be by "Baathists" is, according to one administration official, akin to saying "Nazis" when you mean "the SS" -- the most fearsome of the Nazis. Such an offensive could make Sadr's insurgency seem a minor irritant. And it could unmake a presidency, as Tet did.