From Cakewalk to Quagmire

     As we enter the fourth year of the Iraq war, 
President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of 
Defense Rumsfeld continue to insist that it has been a 
success so far, hinting broadly that we must try this 
again some time soon in Iran.

     The neoconservatives can hardly wait, and they may 
not have to wait long. Given what an attack on Iran would 
do to the world oil market, you may want to think about 
purchasing a new mode of transportation. A horse, 

     Amazing. At least during the Vietnam War, Lyndon 
Johnson and Richard Nixon, even at their most stubborn, 
never told us we needed an even wider war to go with it. 
One quagmire at a time was more than enough. Few people 
would now quarrel with the word "quagmire" to describe 
the current war. Bush, though, still denies that what is 
happening in Iraq is a "civil war."

     Nearly everyone else, at this point, is discussing 
the best way to get out of Iraq and cut our losses, 
instantly or gradually. Like Social Security and 
Medicare, this war is turning out to be more costly than 
even the pessimists predicted. But once again, nobody -- 
nobody in national politics, that is -- seems to want to 
admit its whole premise was wrong and start over. The 
warfare-welfare state is here to stay for a while longer, 
until it collapses of its own weight. Bush, even more 
than Johnson, has seen to that.

     I once asked how Bush's successor will clean up 
after the mess he is leaving. It seems I was premature. 
Bush is going to have to cope with his own mess before he 
leaves office. So far, he is denying that there is any 
mess. He refuses either to reduce troop levels or to 
raise taxes to pay for his huge additions to Medicare. 
Not that taxes should be raised, but he should face the 
fact that he has committed us to the impossible.

     Congress has responded by raising the national debt 
limit to $8 trillion, thereby passing the cost along to 
future generations; this is the Republican version of 
socialism, redistributing wealth from the unborn to the 

     Republicans mocked the licentious Bill Clinton as a 
child of the sixties, and so he was, but the jeer also 
suits their spendthrift president, who wants to put 
everything on the future's charge card. Most observers 
have quit asking what Bush's political philosophy is, 
since he obviously has none.

     When I saw a picture of Bush in New Orleans, using 
hammer and nails to repair a damaged house, my sense of 
unreality peaked. I realized it was only a photo-op, as 
we now say; but the idea of a wartime president pitching 
in with manual labor.... Perhaps we should take another 
look at that Constitution.

The Parties

     The Democrats would love to capitalize on Bush's 
floundering, foundering presidency, but they are still 
having trouble getting their act together. When Sen. Russ 
Feingold introduced a motion to censure Bush for his 
illegal domestic surveillance, but not his conduct of the 
war itself, they panicked and repudiated the measure; 
just as Hillary Clinton has criticized the Iraq war while 
suggesting that something must be done about Iran.

     The Republicans are similarly confused. Bush's 
approval ratings are just above 30%, his lowest ever, so 
they want to keep a prudent distance from him, especially 
on domestic spending; but they also know that his hard 
core of support is also their base, so repudiating him 
outright is another matter. November's midterm elections 
are coming up.

     Lines between -- and within -- the two parties have 
been further confused by the ports deal, illegal 
immigration, and other issues that stir unpredictable 
passions but fall outside traditional ideological 

     Then, once again, there are figures like Bill 
Buckley, who had no sooner enraged neoconservatives by 
pronouncing the Iraq war a "defeat" than he sought to 
redeem himself by calling for a military strike against 

     But at least Buckley had raised a serious question. 
Even if you think a war is justified, you have to face 
the consequences. Buckley thinks the war on Iraq was 
justified, but says the results have turned out to be 
more than we can bear. This is a mature distinction, a 
recognition that optimism has its limits.

     Bush and the hawks, on the other hand, argue that 
because the war is justified, the results can only be 
good, as long as we "stay the course." In John Kennedy's 
now-hackneyed words, "we will bear any burden, pay any 

     So Bush sees it as his mission to keep up morale 
until victory is achieved. Unfortunately, he is not cut 
out for leadership. That is becoming clearer every week.

Faith in War

     Every so often, I get an abusive letter from a 
reader, who is sometimes a patriot first, a Catholic 
second, and a logician a distant third, along these 
lines: "Our brave soldier are fighting in [wherever] to 
protect the very freedoms, such as freedom of speech, you 
cowardly peaceniks are abusing."

     Ignore the accusation and examine the premise. This 
assumes that we owe our freedoms to war, and that our 
wars, no matter where, defend those freedoms. It is an 
odd assumption, but it has the status of an American 
dogma, which we are all expected to accept as an 
unquestioned article of faith.

     Never mind that our freedoms are actually won at 
home (as in common law and the Bill of Rights), that wars 
are waged for other reasons, and that the enemy seldom if 
ever aims to destroy our domestic freedoms. Was Jefferson 
Davis trying to enslave the North? Was the Kaiser aiming 
to abolish free speech? Was Manuel Noriega intent on 
preventing us from worshiping freely? Was Saddam Hussein 
(or Osama bin Laden) hoping to repeal the Bill of Rights? 
These questions answer themselves.

     And never mind that our freedoms have been most 
seriously abridged by our own presidents during wartime: 
Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and now Bush.

     Nor can I think of a notable philosopher or 
theologian who has held that war has any inherent 
tendency to promote personal liberty. The idea is absurd. 
Yes, now and then invaders are repelled or occupiers 
expelled by violence, but these are exceptional cases.

     Did our Lord ever celebrate a war? This question 
answers itself too.

                +          +          +                  

     "The measure of the state's success is that the word 
anarchy frightens people, while the word state does not" 
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                                        --- Joseph Sobran


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