Of Quagmires and Dominoes

It's all beginning to sound familiar. The Iraq adventure may have been a strategic mistake, our intelligence and tactical calculations may have been faulty, the cost in money and blood may have exceeded estimates, the expectations for success may have been inflated, but we can't reverse course now. "There will be no retreat," President Bush told the annual American Legion convention in late August, adding that America's only option is "total victory." He repeated the theme a week later, telling a Labor Day gathering the U cannot and will not back down in Iraq, no matter what.

If those who were around in the 1960s think this sounds like Vietnam revisited, they're right -- even down to the infamous domino theory. The domino theory, for those not up on their recent history, held that if Vietnam went communist, other Asian countries would soon follow, one after the other, like a series of falling dominoes. Either we stopped the red hordes there, or they would soon be in Hawaii and, ultimately, be landing on the beaches of California.

George W. raised the specter of falling dominoes before his receptive legionnaire audience. Our military, said the president, was fighting "terrorism" in Iraq so Americans wouldn't have to face terrorists in New York, St. Louis, or Los Angeles. Delaware's Joe Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a strong supporter of the Mideast intervention, echoed the Bush rationale and even expanded on it. If we didn't succeed in Iraq, warned Biden, a regional catastrophe would take place: terrorism would rise, and friendly Arab governments would fall, dominolike, in sequential order. In short, we may be hip-deep in the Big Muddy -- the Big Sandy in this case -- but there's no alternative except to slog on for another two, five, 10, 15 years, whatever it takes.

The reason why is not entirely clear. Terrorism, the great fear, the catalyst that will presumably topple the dominoes, has already arisen in Iraq (where it didn't exist before), not because of American failure, but because of American presence. In a kind of weird self-fulfilling prophecy, our invasion and occupation created a magnet for terrorism, and now, we are told, we must remain to combat it as a supreme test of our national will and perseverance.

A similar logic played out in Southeast Asia a generation ago, giving rise to the term quagmire, which Webster's defines as "a difficult, precarious, or entrapping position." The Vietnam quagmire -- I use the word advisedly -- drained American manpower and resources for well over a decade. Iraq threatens to do the same; its rehabilitation and redemption, promoters regretfully inform us, may take at least that long, or longer. The dreaded "Q" word, linguistically mothballed lo these many years, appears poised to enjoy a splendid revival in the American lexicon.

There are other apt comparisons between Vietnam then and Iraq now. The Vietnamese conflict, previous secretaries of defense advised the nation throughout the 1960s, was not an indigenous civil war, but a war of Marxist-Leninist aggression; our enemies were not nationalists or patriots, but simply communists. The uprising in postinvasion Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is similarly instructing the nation 40 years later, is not a guerrilla war against foreign occupation, but a war to reestablish Saddam Hussein's tyranny; our enemies are not nationalists or patriots, but simply Baathist dead enders and Islamic terrorists. Surely, no other Iraqis would object to a kindly American military regime.

The great bugaboo of our parents' generation, communism, has thus been replaced by the great bugaboo of our own, terrorism. From here on, any government we dislike or mistrust will invariably be found to have terrorist connections and will be placed on the preemption list. That, in a nutshell, is our future based on the Iraq precedent set by George W. Bush's delayed adolescent rite of passage.

The cost will be high. Already, twice as many American combatants have died in the current Iraq operation as in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and three times as many have been wounded. The cost in national treasure is rising as well: a projected outlay in excess of $160 billion just through fiscal 2004 to pacify and reconstruct presentday Iraq, compared to $80 billion for the entire Gulf War, all but $16 billion of it paid by our then-allies, most of whom want no part of the bill for this misadventure.

Iraq spending, now pegged at $4 billion a month, is starting to bite; it will bite harder as time passes and the supplemental appropriations approved by a benumbed Congress pile up. A tidy $13 billion is the expected tab simply for restoring the Iraqi electrical system, and then there's the water system, the health system, the educational system, the prostrate oil industry, and so forth. Untold Pentagon expenditures will be needed, as well, to keep paramilitary resistance forces in check. Now that's real "shock and awe," considering the state of the US economy.

We presently have 9 million workers collecting unemployment benefits and another 1.7 million discouraged workers who have given up looking for jobs. We have a foolishly deregulated electrical power grid teetering on the verge of collapse, one that in August resembled Iraq's. We have 41 of 50 states mired in the throes of a cumulative $78 billion budget shortfall, as they begin preparing their drastically curtailed spending plans for next year. And don't even think about the growing health-care crisis or the $480 billion deficit on our federal balance sheet. To revise an old cliché from the Vietnam era, the light at the end of the tunnel may be the headlamp of the train about to run us down.

And, yet, the entire American political class and diplomatic establishment insist we must stay in Iraq and finish what George W. Bush started, even if it was premised on lies, self delusions, and grandiose dreams of omnipotence. To do otherwise would be to embarrass our leaders, cause the US government to lose face, and imply to the world that Washington lacks resolve. Excuse me, but this movie's been shown before. I believe I hear the 1960s calling. This must be where I came in.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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