December 9, 2005
'Victory in Iraq': A Strategy to Mask Defeat

By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- "Victory has a thousand fathers ..." John F. Kennedy once said, famously. Last week one of his successors, President Bush, used the word about that many times as he tried to explain how we would win one day in Iraq.

Alas, that is not going to happen. But Mr. Victory is talking as fast as he can to avoid thinking about JFK's next line: "Defeat is an orphan."

Hopefully, Bush, whom I characterized a week ago as running a strong race to be our worst president ever, will look a little better next week after the Iraqi elections we made possible. That would be a good thing for Iraq as it seems to collapse before our eyes. Certainly our ever-changing strategies there are collapsing. In fact, the "Plan for Victory," as the president called his speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, is a strategy to mask defeat.

Bravado aside, the new strategy, borrowed from failure in Vietnam and 19th-century British colonialism, could be called "Bases and Borders." The president put it this way: "We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate and conduct fewer patrols and convoys."

What we will do, as laid out in the 35-page strategy paper that accompanied the Annapolis speech, is to begin redeploying our troops in force-protection areas. They will then venture out on raids now and then -- and try to secure the borders from what Bush called "regional meddling and infiltration." That means trying to block Syria, Iran and Turkey from pursuing their interests on Iraqi soil.

Newly trained Iraqi units will be left to try to turn the Iraqi-protected cities into larger versions of what were called "strategic hamlets" in Vietnam. The border strategy is an updating of the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Vietnam, or British forts along barren boundaries between tribes in make-believe countries. Unfortunately for us, the real problems of our adventure are already inside the borders of Iraq. Once more we are in a civil war, this time one we helped trigger by clumsily overthrowing a vicious dictatorship.

And all the while, as happened at home in the 1970s and happened in Britain in the late 1800s, we will tear up our own country in the process. I got a sample of that last week, when I compared Bush with poor old James Buchanan, blamed by many as the president who made our own Civil War inevitable. The number of e-mails I received topped 10,000 and counting, the majority of them heavy on two words, one printable, "" and "moron." (Many of them can be read on or Yahoo!News Op-Ed.)

Not all the reaction was bad, and not all of the bad was bad. There are valid arguments for "staying the course," though I was partial to e-mail 11,409, which said on the subject of Iraq threatening us: "If we had waited for Vietnam to invade us, we'd still be waiting."

The basic thrust of the reaction to emphasizing Bush's proud and stubborn ignorance of history was that people like me, who were against this thing from the start and laid out how it would inevitably end, are the reason it has gone badly. Actually the reason adventures like this go badly is that we attacked people who have occupied desert or jungle for thousands of years, and will still be there a thousand years from now -- and we won't.

"The neighborhood is inhospitable," Bush told our future Navy and Marine officers. He got that right. It would have been better if he understood that from the beginning rather than listening to the flag-waving pipe dreams of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

Pray for a good election next week. Let that be the beginning of Iraqis fighting each other for a new Iraq -- or no Iraq, which is a possibility. Then President Bush can "redeploy." He could take a lesson from his hero, President Reagan, who vowed to stay the course after his reckless words siding with Christians against Muslims in Lebanon in 1983 led to the killing of more than 250 U.S. Marine peacekeepers in a suicide bombing at the Beirut airport. Then Reagan waited a few weeks and announced "redeployment" -- to ships 30 miles offshore.

Copyright 2005 Universal Press Syndicate

Richard Reeves

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