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Therapy For Nation Builders

By Henry Allen
Saturday, January 13, 2007

Here's an idea to play with:

Give it to him, give the president everything he wants for the war in Iraq. Money, troops, the support of Congress, all of it.

Give everything that's requested by everybody in the military-industrial-political-intellectual-media complex, or at least the ones who got us into this war and still think they can get us out of it with a win.

For one thing, there's always a chance, however slight, that they will. That would be nice indeed.

After all, our vision for Iraq is way nicer than our enemies' alternatives. South Vietnam would be better off, too, if we'd won. It's nice to think that if we'd achieved our goals in Cuba, instead of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, or in Somalia instead of the "Black Hawk Down" embarrassment, or Lebanon instead of the barracks-bombing catastrophe, they'd be better off, too.

A loss in Korea would have been far worse than the stalemate we settled for.

Right now, a nice outcome seems unlikely in Iraq.

But then, the proposal on the table here, a sort of thought experiment, addresses a problem that is a lot bigger than Iraq.

The problem, if we lose in Iraq, is that America is apt to keep on doing what it's been doing for decades when it loses, which is to say learn nothing and have years of hissy fits about who's to blame. And set itself up for another fiasco someplace else.

We have had successes: the liberation of Kuwait and our intervention in the Balkans. And, most important of all, we won the Cold War without ever having to match armies and nuclear arsenals with the Soviet Union.

But our combat fiascos are coming to define America both to the world and to itself. They are also demonstrating that we are incapable of winning ground wars against some of the poorest people on Earth, if those wars last more than a week.

After Vietnam, one hoped that we could salvage pride in the courage with which our soldiers fought, and in the knowledge that we had learned our lesson well enough that we would never again send them to die in such a doomed cause.

As we watched our helicopters abandon our terrified allies on the roof of our Saigon embassy, it seemed reasonable to assume that the shame of that moment would lead to a new sanity.

Instead, our failed ground combat interventions and nation building continue like a sort of neurosis, the kind that has been defined as doing the same thing over and over in expectation of a different result, in the manner of France fighting and losing one colonial war after another after World War II.

In America, however, this syndrome is a legacy not of colonialism but of World War II itself -- of a triumphalism of the sort John Kennedy perpetuated when he boasted of being from the generation born of that war, and said that the lesson to be learned was that we should pay any price, bear any burden, to assure the success of liberty.

How good we feel about ourselves, sharing this dream. Without the illusion that we can make it come true, we would be like Britain without its empire, like France without its mission civilatrice, a nation tinged by shabby resentment and existential resignation. The problem is that reality may leave us with nothing better in the end.

As part of our thought experiment, think now of our mind-set as an American sickness, an addiction in the form of a belief.

If it were an addiction, we would create a 12-step program to cure it. The first step would be recognizing that our governing establishment is powerless over it, and that our attitude toward our role in the world has become unmanageable.

Recovering alcoholics will say that they didn't begin their recovery until they "hit bottom." It turns out that it was a mistake to believe we hit bottom while watching those helicopters in 1975, or any of the smaller failures that have followed. And so, the proposal here is to make sure that this time we hit bottom hard enough to prove to ourselves once and for all that the very nation-building that George W. Bush swore off before the 2000 election still has him -- and, more important, us -- helpless in its grip.

On the other hand, maybe if we give the president everything he wants he'll turn this thing around. How nice. Then we can be off to invade Iran, barrel across the DMZ into North Korea, liberate Tibet . . .

Henry Allen is a writer and editor for The Post's Style section.

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