Confronting the Impossible

America is the can-do nation. They say it can’t be done – we do it. They say that there’s no good solution to the problem – we find one. If it’s physically or mathematically or historically impossible, we do it anyway. The idea that for some problems there is no solution, and trying to find one will only make matters worse, must be a French notion – the kind of thing Sartre and Camus grimly discussed over odd cigarettes and bad coffee on a bleak rainy afternoon in Paris in the fifties. We don’t do existential despair. We do things. We put a man on the moon and brought him back safely, and did that again and again. We invent things that that change everything – the light bulb, the transistor and the microchip and the laser, and flavored potato chips, with ripples. We do what others can’t, or won’t, because were exceptional. American exceptionalism means we are the one and only expectation to the rule – choose your rule – any will do. Everyone knows this. They may resent it, but they know this – and since we’re nice guys who do only good things in the world, they really shouldn’t resent us. Perhaps they’re just jealous.

Perhaps they’re laughing at us. Afghanistan has been called the Graveyard of Empires – the British found that out (that’s where’s Sherlock Holmes’ Watson caught that bullet that left him with nothing to do but chronicle the oddities of his roommate) – and the Soviets certainly found that out. Some have argued that Ronald Reagan didn’t end the cold war and cause the collapse of the Soviet Union with his steely gaze and winning smile. Their many years in Afghanistan, trying to transform the place into what they wanted it to be, drained the Soviet Union dry. They left, Afghanistan remained as it had been before, and the Soviet Union ended up nearly bankrupt, with its military hollowed out and the nation demoralized. Collapse was inevitable.

The British could have warned them – they got out of Afghanistan before Queen Victoria had to sell the crown jewels and hold a bake sale – but we went in anyway. We were the exception to the rule, so it’s little wonder that after we decimated the Taliban there, the whole point in the first place, we stayed on, to transform the place into what we wanted it to be – and we are still in the longest war in American history, there, of all places. We will leave next year, perhaps, after more than a dozen years of deadly and quite expensive fighting, and Afghanistan will remain as it had been before – a vast empty place with various tribes and alliances and no real central government, at least not one that controls much outside Kabul. We will have gained nothing much, other than (1) the massive debt we incurred to pay for it all – the whole thing was paid for with off-budget emergency appropriations that meant selling a whole lot of long-term treasury notes to anyone who thought we’d pay them back with interest one day – and (2) a bewildered and demoralized American public. There was no third thing, and for years all the polling has shown that the American public long ago decided that they really didn’t see the point to all this. Maybe we can do the impossible, eventually, but eventually might mean never. It’s wonderful to never give up, but there’s no point in being a damned fool about things.

The pivot to Iraq was even odder. In the run-up to shifting the war there, in addition to all the voices saying Iraq and Saddam Hussein had little to do with the terrorism we said we were fighting and that the idea he had weapons of mass destruction seemed based on no real hard evidence, some were saying that there was a rule that applied here – never get involved in a land war in Asia. General Douglas MacArthur is said to have said that to President Kennedy in 1961, about Vietnam – but that may be apocryphal. It doesn’t matter. It was good advice, and that was in the air when we were surely going to war in Iraq – but it didn’t matter. We went in anyway – taking care of Iraq would keep us safe, and after we were safe we’d build a Jeffersonian secular democracy there, as an example to the region, to show everyone over there the virtues of the American Way. All we had to do was tamp down the Sunni-Shiite civil war that had exploded once we had settled in and the “surge” would take care of that – thirty thousand additional troops to stop the internecine violence, to give both sides “breathing room” to work out their differences and form a sensible inclusive government.

That seemed impossible, but we can do the impossible, eventually – but there’s also no point in being a damned fool about things. The Bush administration finally just set a firm date for us to leave, and carefully negotiated a status of forces agreement, to keep enough of our troops in Iraq to keep al-Qaeda types from setting up shop there – but the Malaki government refused to sign that agreement and told us to just go away. Bush and Cheney were gone by then and the Malaki government told Obama they just wouldn’t sign the Bush agreement – their own parliament would never ratify it and voted not to ratify it – and we left. We really had no choice, because we foolishly had said that Iraq was now a sovereign nation – and now Iraq is a sovereign nation run by a Shiite strongman, Malaki, as opposed to a Sunni strongman, Saddam Hussein, and closely aligned with their two Shiite neighbors, Iran and Syria, our current sworn enemies in the region. There would be no Jeffersonian secular democracy there. Oh well. This would have to do.

America came to accept this, or ignore that the two main impulses in the American character were at odds here. We like to think that we can do anything, and will, and show everyone we can do the impossible. We also like to think we know when not to be a damned fool about things, that point where you look at the costs, and the highly unlikely benefits, and just say screw it. We are unstoppable idealists, and hard-nosed utter pragmatists, and we’ve never resolved the inherent contradiction in that. You can’t be both. All you can do is not think about it, and hope that you don’t have to think about it – because you’d have to decide which you are.

That’s easy enough. People don’t think about such things, until they’re forced to, which seldom happens – but that just happened. Iraq is falling apart, and Obama has found that he’s the pragmatist:

The Obama administration has decided to hold any military intervention in Iraq in abeyance until it sees clear evidence that the country’s politics and governance are reforming, according to U.S. officials.

After near-nonstop crisis meetings since early this week, President Obama has ordered options prepared for possible airstrikes in Iraq as well as a wide range of direct military assistance short of American boots on the ground.

But after assessing that Baghdad’s fall to advancing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is not imminent, the administration has opted for a short-term strategy that it sees as offering potential long-term gain.

The United States “is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together,” Obama said Friday in a statement outside the White House.

He’s just being practical, given the dynamics here:

U.S. intervention to stop ISIS forces could help spark all-out sectarian war if it were seen as enabling the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stay in power without making concessions to the long-abused Sunni minority.

Failure to intervene could bring the same result if the Shiite majority activates its own radical militias and rises up to protect the government.

“This will get even more entrenched,” said a senior administration official. “It has the potential to really ignite a sectarian conflagration.”

There’s no good option here, so it’s best not to blunder in and be a damned fool about things, making things worse, but then there’s the other guy:

Sen. John McCain continued his blistering attack on President Barack Obama’s handling of Iraq on Friday, again calling for his entire national security team to be replaced and saying his decisions have been very costly.

“The president wanted out and now we are paying a heavy price,” the Arizona Republican said on MSNBC.

McCain said repeatedly that the U.S. “had the conflict won” after the 2007 troop surge, with Iraq maintaining a stable government and Al Qaeda extremists largely defeated.

But the Obama administration’s decision not to leave behind a residual force, he said, has caused the situation to deteriorate. Now, the senator said, “this has turned into one of the most serious threats to American security in recent history.”

He is who he is, and he longs for the good old days:

McCain, though, did not explicitly advocate a U.S. strategy for helping the crisis now, remaining noncommittal on the potential use of airstrikes against militants in the country. Instead, he called on the president to enlist the advice of retired Army generals David Petraeus and Jack Keane, two of the architects of the surge.

The senator linked the situation in Iraq with the civil war in Syria, citing the “failure” of the administration to commit resources in both of the neighboring countries. McCain has often slammed the administration for what he perceives as inaction in Syria and a lack of commitment to the Syrian opposition.

And McCain said that if Obama withdraws completely from Afghanistan, that country will also destabilize rapidly. “You’re going to see the same thing in Afghanistan if we don’t leave a residual force behind,” he claimed, saying he can “guarantee” it.

Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and – and we should be in all such places. Right, and at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski goes McCain one better:

Were the Democrats right? Was Iraq a lost cause, inevitably, all along? There’s one big problem with this narrative: Iraq has fallen apart on President Obama’s watch, as a consequence of his own policy of willful neglect. I would say that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that doesn’t quite seem to cover it. Instead, I would characterize this as a wish-fulfilling prophecy. If Iraq is falling to al-Qaeda, it’s because this administration deliberately chose to throw away the victory handed to them by George W. Bush. The left thought we should have lost the war in Iraq, they wanted us to lose it – and finally they’re getting the outcome they wanted.

Those damned pragmatists! Where is their idealist passion about the perfect Iraq we had once for a few months? The curious thing is that also in the Federalist, David Harsanyi offers this:

Some will, no doubt, argue that doing nothing (and we might very well be doing something soon) means that more than 4,400 U.S. troops and over $700 billion had been wasted in a war that ended but was not won. Perhaps. But a more important matter is this: would the death of another 4,000, or 400, or four, bring about a preferable outcome or a set of conditions that allow the United States to convincingly declare victory? If a decade of nation building brought us this, what could we possible gain by seriously reengaging? Clearly, to make it work the American people would need to be prepared to make a generational commitment – and polls don’t tell us that we’re in the mood for an open-ended conflict in the Middle East.

These are horrible choices, indeed. While millions of civilians no longer experience life under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and we should not forget the sacrifice thousands of soldiers made to allow that to happen, it gets increasingly difficult to imagine that the United States has gained anything worthwhile from its invasion of Iraq. It’s difficult to understand how spending another five or ten years sorting out a sectarian civil war can possible be in our best interests.

In short, there’s no point in being a damned fool about things, and Daniel Larison offers only logic:

Maliki was already governing in a sectarian and semi-authoritarian manner when the U.S. had a major military presence in the country, so it seems clear that retaining a smaller presence would have had no effect on him and his allies. It is even more doubtful that the U.S. would use this leverage if it had it. This is the trouble with trying to condition future aid on improvements in Maliki’s behavior: when push comes to shove, the U.S. usually refuses to cut off aid because it doesn’t want to “abandon” its client. …

Intervening militarily to prevent further advances by ISIS would commit the U.S. to acting as Maliki’s protector indefinitely, and the more resources that the U.S. commits to this the harder it will be to pull the plug at some point in the future.

There is that, and Fareed Zakaria looks at the facts here:

I would have preferred to see a small American force in Iraq to try to prevent the country’s collapse. But let’s remember why this force is not there. Maliki refused to provide the guarantees that every other country in the world that hosts U.S. forces offers. Some commentators have blamed the Obama administration for negotiating badly or halfheartedly and perhaps this is true. But here’s what a senior Iraqi politician told me in the days when the U.S. withdrawal was being discussed: “It will not happen. Maliki cannot allow American troops to stay on. Iran has made very clear to Maliki that its No. 1 demand is that there be no American troops remaining in Iraq. And Maliki owes them.”

He reminded me that Maliki spent 24 years in exile, most of them in Tehran and Damascus, and his party was funded by Iran for most of its existence. And in fact, Maliki’s government has followed policies that have been pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian.

Paul Waldman speaks to that:

We have now reached the rather ironic situation in Iraq where we find ourselves allied with Iran in an effort to save the corrupt and thuggish government of Nouri al-Maliki, while the army we spent eight years training falls apart. I’m not going to pretend to have unique insight into Iraqi politics – but there are few people who understand Iraq less than the Republican politicians and pundits who are being sought out for their comments on the current situation.

As you watch the debate on this issue, you should remind yourself that the most prominent voices being heard are the very ones who brought us the Iraq War in the first place, who promised that everything was simple and the only question was whether we’d be “strong” and “decisive” enough – the same thing they’re saying today. They’re the ones who swore that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda, that he had a terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, that the war would be quick, easy and cheap, that since Iraq was a largely secular country we wouldn’t have to worry about sectarian conflict, and that democracy would spread throughout the region in short order, bringing peace and prosperity along with it.

Waldman doesn’t like unstoppable idealists and he certainly doesn’t like John McCain:

McCain does provide something important to journalists: whatever the issue of the moment is, he can be counted on to offer angry, bitter criticism of the Obama administration, giving the “balance” every story needs. The fact that he has never demonstrated the slightest bit of understanding of Iraq is no bar at all to being the most quoted person on the topic.

For context, here’s a nice roundup of some of the things McCain said when he was pushing to invade Iraq in the first place. When asked if Iraqis were going to greet us as liberators, he answered, “Absolutely.” He said, “Post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is going to be paid for by the Iraqis” with their oil wealth (the war ended up costing the American taxpayer upwards of $2 trillion). And my favorite: “There is not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias, so I think they can probably get along.”

The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is the central dynamic of the Iraq conflict, of course. Yet today, the media once again seek out John McCain’s wisdom and insight on Iraq, which is kind of like saying, “Jeez, it looks like we might be lost – we really need to ask Mr. Magoo for directions.”

Of late, he has a habit of walking out in the middle of briefings where he might actually learn what’s going on so he can head to the cameras and express his dudgeon. His current genius idea is for the administration to rehire David Petraeus and send him to Iraq, where he’ll… do something or other. He showed his deep knowledge yesterday by saying “Al Qaeda is now the richest terrorist organization in history,” apparently unaware that ISIS, the group sweeping through Iraq, is not in fact the same thing as Al Qaeda.

Waldman is not happy:

We’re facing yet another awful and complex situation in the Middle East where we have a limited set of options, and none of them are good. But whenever you hear anyone say that the answer is simple and that being “strong” is the key – as one conservative after another will no doubt be saying in the coming days – don’t forget what happened the last time the country listened to them.

Some of them even know better:

Former President George W. Bush will make no public statement on the developing crisis in Iraq, his spokesman said today.

“President Bush has vowed not to criticize his successor and does not have a comment,” Freddy Ford told ABC News in a statement.

Maybe this formerly smug and smirking Bush is actually embarrassed now. Maybe he knows, now, that he had been jerked around by all those unstoppable neoconservative idealists surrounding him, who had told him America could do the impossible, and now feels like a fool for ever having believed any of that Ideal All-American Iraq transforming the Middle East and then the world crap – but that might be giving him too much credit. Maybe he just doesn’t want to think about this – he can’t face giving up that seductive American exceptionalism that posits we can do anything, even the impossible, so he’d rather say nothing.

Some problems just cannot be fixed? No American wants to think that either. They’ll say that’s just not so. That can’t be so – but there comes a moment when that is so. Some things are impossible. The impossible is real, as we have just discovered – and everyone knows that when you discover that you finally grow up, you become an adult. You move on and make the best of things, such as they are.

American just grew up. And some among us hate growing up.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Confronting the Impossible

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    Interesting view. As an Eurpean one thinks it starts out as a satire, finds some sense of reality in the middle part, returning to real life satire and then, finally, in the very last line, finds himself being confronted with an excuse rather unbelievably lame: a poor children matured from their playground …

    Though – as usual – this essay reads smoothly, intelligently, and one has to suppress a caustic smile over and over again about all those loonies who found the honour of being cited, the essence of the essay still seems untrue. The idea of growing up to be just another prevarication and delusion.

    Or would that be the excuse to be extended to all those who lost their lives due to the machinations of the US during the last 130 years or so of its existence?

    In my humble opinion the US never ever grew up. No need, and psychologically impossible as well. Because those men who landed at the shores of this once untainted continent, already were adults.

  2. John Le Pouvoir says:

    From AP – “Working in secret, European diplomats drew up the borders that have defined the Middle East’s nations for nearly a century — but now civil war, sectarian bloodshed and leadership failures threaten to rip that map apart.” Americans decided, back about 75 or so years ago, to go over there, mainly to steal oil, and in doing so we bought into the lines that those Europeans had been drawn. We may finally be waking to the idea that the folks there don’t see themselves as ‘nations’. The operative organization is still the tribe, and perhaps it would be better to let those groups evolve their own dynamic relationships. The unfortunate thing is that the factions will use our left behind war implements to kill one another.

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