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Talking Ourselves Into Defeat

By Daniel Henninger

The United States is talking itself into defeat in Iraq. Its political culture is now in a downward spiral of pessimism. In the halls of Congress, across endless newspaper columns, amid the punditocracy and on Sunday morning talk shows--all emit a Stygian gloom about America.

Yes, on any given day on some discrete issue (Prime Minister Maliki's bona fides, for example), the criticism of the American role is not without justification. But the cumulative effect of this unremitting ill wind is corrosive. We are not only on the way to talking ourselves into defeat in Iraq but into a diminished international status that may be harder to recover than the doom mob imagines. Self-criticism has its role, but profligate self-doubt can exact a price.

Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins wonders "whether the clock has already run out." To U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the new strategy is "a dead end." For the Bush troop request, presidential candidate Joe Biden predicted "overwhelming rejection." (His committee resolution to that effect yesterday passed by three votes.) Presidential candidate Chuck Hagel: "We have anarchy in Iraq. It's getting worse." And not least, Sen. John Warner this week heaved his tenured eminence against the war effort, proposing another "non-binding" resolution against more troops.

To pick one amid scores of similar characterizations in the media, the Associated Press wrote from Washington before the State of the Union speech that "Democrats--and even some Republicans--scoffed at his policy." "Scoff" is a strong word, suggesting eye-rolling ridicule. (The line was so good that the AP ran it after the speech as well, under another writer's byline, this time from Baghdad.) But of course amid the giddy vapors of mass mockery, they all "support the troops."

Our slide to a national nervous breakdown because of Iraq is not going unnoticed. Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has been visiting across the U.S. this week. "I've been pretty worried about what I've heard," Mr. Downer said in an interview. Walking on Santa Monica beach Sunday before last, Mr. Downer said he encountered a display of crosses in the sand, representing the American dead in Iraq.

"What concerns me about this," he said, "is that it's sort of an isolationist sentiment, subconsciously, not consciously, and that would be an enormous problem for the world. I hope the American people understand the importance of not retreating and thinking the world's problems aren't theirs."

Some of this is politics as usual, but even normal partisanship comes dressed now in the language of apocalypse. In his SOTU rebuttal, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb ripped into the current economy, saying it reminded him of the early 1900s: "The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt." Ah, we've fallen to the level of czarist Russia.

You know the pessimism has turned manic when no one is allowed to depart the asylum. Sen. John McCain's support for Iraq and the new Bush plan is now being described in press reports as not only costing him support in the polls (the asylum's inkblot of reality) but worse, the support of campaign contributors.

It is a phenomenon fascinating to behold. Its causes are multiple, but here are several:

Bush schadenfreude. Partisan pleasure in George Bush's pain dates to the anguish of the contested 2000 election loss. The Democrats have run against something called "Bush" for so long that this sentiment is now bound up in any act or policy remotely attached to the president. Iraq's troubles, or Iran or North Korea, are merely an artifact of crushing this one guy.

The Iraq Study Group. The ISG report wasn't defeatist, but it enabled the vocabulary of defeat. Its warning of a "slide toward chaos" was re-defined as the current Iraqi status quo. They called their bipartisan solution "phased withdrawal," but it was a euphemism for defeat. Momentum was already building in this direction, and the ISG propelled it.

The leadership vacuum. The administration never rallied the nation behind the war in a concrete way. A young Marine officer recently returned from combat in Iraq told me this week he is taken aback at how disassociated the American people seem from Iraq, no matter how constantly it's in the news. He says it's as if the problem is not so much what is actually happening in Iraq but that the war is "annoying" to Americans, as if to say: Can't it just go away or not be on the front page all the time? Rallying a nation at war is a president's job.

The opposition vacuum. One reason the negative mood in politics is so disconcerting is that the opposition's alternative vision is nonexistent. On joining the opposition recently, GOP Sen. Norm Coleman announced, "I can't tell you what the path to success is." Joe Biden says the "primary" Iraq strategy should be to force its leaders to make the political compromises necessary to "end the violence."

As a political strategy, unremitting opposition has worked. Approval for the president and the war is low. The GOP lost sight of its ideological lodestars and so control of Congress. But the U.S. still occupies a unique position of power in the world, and we are putting that status at risk by playing politics without a net.

On the "Charlie Rose Show" this month, former Army vice chief of staff Gen. Jack Keane, who supports the counterinsurgency plan being undertaken by Gen. David Petraeus, said in exasperation: "My God, this is the United States. We are the world's No. 1 superpower. This isn't about arrogance. This is about capability and applying ourselves to a problem that is at its essence a human problem."

At our current juncture, Gen. Keane's words probably rub many the wrong way. But there's a Cassandra-like warning implicit in them. The mood of mass resignation spreading through the body politic is toxic. It is uncharacteristic of Americans under stress. Some might call it realism, but it looks closer to the fatalism of elderly Europe, overwhelmed and exhausted by its burdens, than to the American tradition.

In 1966, Sen. George Aiken delivered a speech on Vietnam famously translated for history as "declare victory and go home.' " On current course, it looks like we may declare defeat and go home.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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