A lot of people are linking approvingly to Hagel's piece in the WaPo this morning. While I'm happy - overjoyed, really - to see any senior Republicans calling for withdrawal, I do have some major disagreements with Hagel's piece. This is less about the politics, or even the policy, but more about what story America will tell itself after it leaves Iraq. Here, I think Hagel's narrative has some serious flaws.
Of my two major problems with this piece, let's start with the one in the middle of the piece, where Hagel writes:
There will be a new center of gravity in the Middle East that will include Iraq. That process began over the past few days with the Syrians and Iraqis restoring diplomatic relations after 20 years of having no formal communication. The next installment would be this weekend's unprecedented meeting in Iran of the presidents of Iran, Syria and Iraq, if it takes place.
What does this tell us? It tells us that regional powers will fill regional vacuums, and they will move to work in their own self-interest -- without the United States. This is the most encouraging set of actions for the Middle East in years.
I'm sorry, but since when does Damascus and Tehran extending their control over a failed state in the heart of a vital strategic region constitute "good news"? How badly has America's influence and power in the world fallen when a Republican Senator is hoping the US Army will be rescued by an alliance of Baathists and Mullahs?
Maybe Hagel is simply acknowledging that the Bush Administration has, in fact, been such a disaster that this is the case. But I think this is actually part of something else, because Hagel starts his piece with this:
There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq. These terms do not reflect the reality of what is going to happen there.... We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation -- regardless of our noble purpose.
It is understandable that politicians are allergic to even implying that America has, in fact, been defeated in Iraq. Nevertheless, it's difficult to ponder what else you call it when America fails to find WMDs, fails to eliminate a terrorist haven, in fact creates a terrorist haven, is unable to support it's chosen government, is forced to withdraw from Iraq, and leaves a vacuum which Hagel acknowledges America's rivals (if not enemies) will fill.
The common thread through Hagel's bizarrely optimistic view of the Assad-Maliki-Ahmedinejad conference and the words "there will be no victory or defeat" in Iraq is a desire to conceal the magnitude of America's defeat. If any country expends billions of dollars and thousands of lives and fails to achieve any meaningful objective, and ends up in a weaker position than when it began, that's a defeat. Hagel is unwilling or unable to state that plainly, and this is dangerous.
I'm not simply trying to be churlish, here. It's important for American policymakers to acknowledge the facts of what has actually occurred if they're going to learn any meaningful lessons from this debacle. Hagel, to his credit, already seems to realize what the lessons are. But Hagel is speaking to a public audience, and as any addict knows, the first step is admitting you have a problem. By couching his overall sound counsel in a way that fails to acknowledge the magnitude of America's failure, I worry that he's making it easy for opportunists in the future to say "we could have won, if only."
Hagel notes that America went in to Iraq "with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam." It's worth asking why America's arrogant self-delusion survived Vietnam in the first place. The only reasonable explanation, I believe, is that both the civilian and military leaders in America refused to accept the fact of America's defeat. The oft-repeated, and totally-irrelevant, belief that America "won every battle but lost the war" is a way of insulating a person from the reality of defeat. "See, we deserved to win, but [insert excuse here.]" This may not be arrogance, exactly, but it's a self-delusion designed solely to preserve one's ego, and not to face the facts.
Indeed, the lessons that America seemed to learn from Vietnam arguably paved the way for this disaster in Iraq. During Gulf War I, the lesson of Vietnam was said to be that wars should be left up to the Generals, and the recent Bush Administration has turned this in to a talking point - Bush evades all responsibility because, he says, he listens to his Generals.
But of course, that isn't the lesson of Vietnam, or certainly not the only one - the Generals failed in Vietnam, too. The military largely acknowledges that fact today. It is not enough to learn "a lesson" from a failure, America needs to learn the right lessons from Iraq. If we are going to be consistent, at least as much blame must fall on the shoulders of men named Franks, Abizaid, Myers and Pace as on men named Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush.
Dana Carvey once did a fantastic impression of George H.W. Bush, in which he said "America learned our lesson in Vietnam. Don't go to Vietnam." By soft-pedalling the reality of America's defeat in Iraq, I worry that Hagel is laying the ground for a similarly disastrous view of Iraq. And in 30 years, we'll all be here again, as the Jenna Bush Administration gets America bogged down in the occupation of Madagascar.