It didn’t take long after the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003 for one of the radioactive words of the Vietnam era to make its first appearance, even if in stunted, referential form. Media pundits, former military men, and others began fretting, even as American soldiers advanced, about the “Q word.” They were, of course, worrying about entering the infamous “quagmire” — the word many Americans had applied to Vietnam as the war there dragged on and on and on. Three years after the fall of Baghdad, with the Bush administration well into their Iraqi version of the quagmire, a couple of letters closer to the ultimate ABCs of political life, are now making their appearance. And little wonder.
Both of these probably began their journey from the political Internet into the mainstream in mid-February when, of all people, conservative icon William F. Buckley raised them both in a near-tombstone op-ed published in the National Review and entitled It Didn’t Work. With that single piece, you could promptly add “D” and “F” to the Iraq alphabet. “One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed,” Buckley wrote and in a single bound, “failure” made it onto the list of the Bush administration’s official ills in Iraq. “Iraqi animosities,” he added, “have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans.” Buckley then suggested that the President had somehow to admit to this reality in order to ensure “the survival” of his larger “strategic policies.” Offering a final line of advice, he ended: “And the kernel here is the acknowledgment of defeat.”
Defeat. The unthinkable. Call it the dreaded “D” word. And suddenly on the scene was the part of the Vietnam era that the President’s high officials and neocon supporters never considered in their wildest dreams and so never spent a day preparing contingency plans for. Now, like it or not, believe it or not, they are in terra incognita and, to mix metaphors, visibly at sea.
Shibley Telhami of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy — though he stuck with the “F” word (for failure) — recently noted the obvious in a piece written for the Baltimore Sun: “Consider the stunning magnitude of the failure. Iraq has been the top priority for the world’s only superpower for the past three years, and a central one for many regional and international powers. The United States, intent on keeping Iraq together, has spent more resources in that country than any state ever has spent on another in the history of the world. Yet the prospect of civil war and a divided Iraq are now greater than they had been at any time.”
In fact, on the civil war front, things are already devolving at a rapid pace. As UPI’s Martin Sieff pointed out, citing the recent monthly figure of 900 “sectarian killings” (which may actually be low), “Iraq is a nation of 25 million people. In the United States, that level of killing would proportionately equal almost 11,000 people killed in riots, reprisal killings and sectarian clashes in a single month.” And that’s not the half of it. In the midst of this growing horror, Bush administration policy is in chaos.
The “D” word may be with us for a while.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]