Washington At the beginning of her military campaign to reverse Argentina's 1982 seizure of the Falklands, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "Failure? The possibilities do not exist." She was paraphrasing Queen Victoria: "We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist." Victoria said that in 1899, during "Black Week" in the Boer War, when things were going badly.
The United States has just endured 12 particularly difficult days in Iraq -- the bombings of the Jordanian embassy, the oil and water pipelines and the United Nations offices. This has been "terrorism plus," terrorism with this difference: Most terrorism is random violence. This is tactical, carefully targeted to serve a cunning strategy.
It is not just a "Mogadishu strategy" intended to induce "occupation fatigue" in America by sporadic attrition of U.S. military personnel, leading to precipitous withdrawal. The purpose of attacking "soft" targets is much easier to achieve. It is to prevent America from making material conditions better.
It was considered marvelous that there was no disorder in New York when the power recently went off for 29 hours. In Iraq, water and electricity have been unreliable for months. Until conditions become much better, Iraq will be a newly created example of a danger newly perceived since 9-11 -- a "failed state." Hence it will be a vacuum into which political evil rushes.
Days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Thatcher, who by serendipity was in Colorado with the first President Bush, exhorted him not to "go wobbly." There was no danger of that, and no danger that this President Bush will do so. Rather, the danger is that he might think that being the reverse of wobbly--obdurate--is a sufficient response to the Iraq challenge.
Perhaps the administration should recognize that something other than its intelligence reports concerning weapons of mass destruction was wrong. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, was wrong in congressional testimony before the war. Although he said "we have no idea what we will need until we get there on the ground," he insisted that Gen. Eric Shinseki, a veteran of peacekeeping in the Balkans, was "wildly off the mark" in estimating that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in occupied Iraq.
Currently, 139,000 U.S. troops and about 22,000 from other nations do not seem sufficient. And there may not be enough U.S. troops to do the job. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, writing in The Washington Times, says that to keep 370,000 deployed in more than 100 countries, "we have called to active duty an unprecedented 136,000 members of the Reserve and National Guard." Today's tempo of operations threatens the Services' retention and recruitment.
To those who say that further internationalization of the occupation of Iraq would lessen U.S. "control," the response is: Control -- such as it is -- should not be the grandiose U.S. objective. Neutralization of Iraq as a source of terror will be sufficient.
Grandiosity is an American inclination because there is an engineering gene in this nation's DNA. Like engineers, Americans assume that the existence of something designated a problem entails the existence of a solution -- a fix waiting to be discovered and implemented. The problem of the vast arid land west of Missouri? Put railroads across it, then irrigate it. The Golden Gate? Throw a bridge across it.
But some conditions -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Ulster are two -- have been shown to be less problems to be tidily and decisively solved, than messes to be slowly and partially ameliorated. The failure to distinguish between solvable problems and durable messes is a facet of a larger political failing.
Much political folly and almost all political calamities (e.g., the French and Russian revolutions, Mao's Cultural Revolution, the murder of perhaps a quarter of Cambodians by Khmer Rouge "re-educators") have flowed from the belief that things -- societies, human nature -- are more malleable than they are.
Some very good people thought like this when expecting that Saddam's defeat would trigger a benign domino effect, emboldening Arab moderates and prompting nasty regimes to mend their ways. But inertia rules, as usual.
Regarding the reconstruction of Iraq (when did the Reconstruction of the American South end? The 1870s? The 1970s?), the United States must resolve, as Victoria and Thatcher did, that the possibilities of defeat are unthinkable. They must be, not because a happy Iraq, or a welcome cascade of political dominos, is or ever was likely in the near term, but because U.S. national security, meaning the war on terrorism and rogue regimes, must move on.