Has there ever before been a war that so many people disapproved of but so few wanted to stop? Have the reasons for starting a war ever been so thoroughly discredited without turning into reasons for ending it?
The Vietnam-era antiwar movement had an agenda: Bring the troops home. Or, in two words -- suitable for a picket sign or a T-shirt -- "Out now." ("Out," children, meant something different back then, but liberals were in favor of it just the same.) What seems to be today's antiwar position -- it was a terrible mistake and it's a terrible mess, but we can't just walk away from it -- was actually the pro-war position during the Vietnam era. In fact, it was close to official government policy for more than half the length of that war.
Today's antiwar cause doesn't even have a movement to speak of, let alone an agenda. It consists of perhaps 47 percent of the citizenry -- the ones who voted for John Kerry -- who are in some kind of existential opposition to the war but aren't doing much about it and aren't very clear about what they would like to see happen. Meanwhile, American soldiers die by the hundreds and Iraqis -- military and civilian -- by the thousands in a cause these people (and I'm one of them) believe to be a horrible mistake.
Kerry spent months untangling the knots of his Iraq position while tangling new ones even faster. He pounded George W. Bush over the phantom weapons of mass destruction and he mocked Bush's confusion of Osama bin Laden with Saddam Hussein. Kerry said that Bush's invasion of Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." So was he in favor of ending it? No, his position was that he would try, but not promise, to bring the troops home in four years. Four years! American involvement in World War II lasted 3 1/2. Bush had a good point when he wondered how, as commander in chief, Kerry could ask American soldiers to die for the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, that problem does not vindicate Bush's belief that Iraq II is the right war in the right etc. But Bush's apparently sincere belief -- protected by his thick skull from all the winds of reality that contradict it -- does relieve him from needing to explain why he doesn't want the war to end now.
Kerry's studiously confused position was not, or not just, a politician stratagem. It was an accurate reflection of the views of his constituency. Most of them deplore the war, but only a tiny fraction favor an immediate pullout. Anyone who opposes the war but isn't ready to demand peace needs to answer the question "Why on Earth not?"
There are answers, possibly even adequate answers. But none of them shines with the kind of obvious truth that makes the question unnecessary, let alone uninteresting, which is how it is being treated. The answers fall in two categories, each associated with a secretary of state.
The Henry Kissinger answer is, in a word, credibility. A superpower that announces a goal and gives up without achieving it will not be super for long. In the end, Nixon and Kissinger added five years to the length of the Vietnam War, and we lost it anyway. Did that add to our superpower credibility? Well, maybe. In the Kissingerian world of high strategy, a reputation for pigheaded stupidity can be almost as valuable as a reputation for wise persistence. What could be more credible than a reputation for staying the course no matter how disastrous it turns out to be?
The Colin Powell answer goes by the nickname "Pottery Barn," referring to the alleged policy of that purveyor of yupware that "if you break it, you own it." In fact, Pottery Barn's breakage policy is much kinder and gentler than that. But it's certainly true that a well-brought-up foreign policy doesn't occupy a country, wreck it and move on like a rock band checking out of a hotel room. The question is whether we're actually helping to tidy up or only making a bigger mess.
The lead headline in last Monday's Los Angeles Times was "Iraqi City Lies in Ruins." That would be Fallujah, a metro area of 300,000 people that many Americans had never heard of until we felt impelled to destroy it. And our reasons were neither trivial nor contemptible. They followed with confident logic from the premise that Saddam Hussein was an intolerable danger to the United States. If so, he had to be taken down. And if that destabilized the country, we had to occupy it for a while and calm it down. And you can't run a national occupation with rebels occupying a major city, so you have to besiege the city and kill a lot of people and leave the place "in ruins."
An American general in Vietnam famously said, "We had to destroy the village to save it." This has become the definitive expression of the macabre futility of war. Last week we destroyed an entire city to save it (progress!), but our capacity to find that sort of thing ironic seems to have become shriveled and harmless.
The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.