MacArthur's Two Words

awe (ô), n.1. Immediate and active fear; terror, dread. --Oxford English Dictionary

Last week Americans were on the receiving end of a kind of shock and awe. The shock of recognition was delivered not by columns of tanks, flights of bombers or salvos of cruise missiles, but by a cell phone. The hanging of Saddam Hussein--not the fact of it, but the manner of it, communicated to the world by video from someone's phone camera--may have been a tipping point. The video, which The Economist said resembled "the sordid snuff videos circulated on the internet by al-Qaeda," may have been, in the scheme of things, just a straw. But coming when it did, it was, for many Americans, perhaps the last straw. In it, they recognized how far into the abyss Iraqi political culture has fallen.

The hanging was conducted in the presence of taunting adherents of Moqtada al-Sadr, the loutish cleric whose militia, the Mahdi Army, is a prime example of why post-Saddam Iraq is a thugocracy. The hanging was an episode of bloodthirsty primitivism in the service of barbaric sectarianism. Which is to say, the hanging was an accurate expression of Iraq's civic culture.

It is shocking that so many Americans were shocked. How much cumulative evidence is needed to teach this country what that country is like? Here is what Iraq is like. Exchanging anecdotes with an Iraqi friend, Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post recounted this one: "Insurgents stopped a driver at a checkpoint. They opened his trunk. 'Why do you have a spare tire?' the insurgent asked solemnly. 'You don't have trust in God?' "

The episode of the hanging sent shivers of dread through America--very timely shivers, thanks to the grainy pictures from the phone (by last Friday, there had been more than 2.5 million viewings of it on YouTube alone). The nation was, just as the 3,000th American combat death was announced, staring at the grotesque face of the faux nation to which more Americans might soon be sent to fight.

This week the president will announce his revision of Iraq policy. In government, personnel are policy, and he has been changing key advisers, military and civilian. Strategy and tactics may change, but in private consultations he reportedly has used one word to denote his unchanged objective: "victory." That is understandable. More than any presidency since Lincoln's, his will be defined by a single matter: Iraq.

It is difficult to imagine how Iraq can end as a success--as an enterprise in which the benefits exceed the costs. And if it is judged a disaster, that will be because the responsible officials were too late in remembering what Gen. Douglas MacArthur said. He said that in war, all disasters can be explained by two words: "too late."

Because the administration was too late to recognize that there were too few U.S. forces in Iraq, the looting after the fall of Baghdad--which did more physical damage to Iraq than the war so far had done--shattered Iraqis' confidence in America, and insurgents were emboldened. Because the administration was too late in admitting that there was an insurgency, Iraq slid into civil war. Because the administration was too late in facing the fact of that civil war, it probably is too late for a "surge" of new U.S. forces, of a size and duration that the American public will tolerate, to extinguish it. For several years, Sen. Joseph Biden, who last week became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has urged an increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Now, he says, it is too late.

Now, in fact, it may be 1966. That year the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. J. William Fulbright, the Arkansas Democrat, held hearings on the Vietnam War. The hearings helped mobilize opposition to the war, which at the time had much more public support than the U.S. engagement in Iraq now has. Much of the impact of Fulbright's hearings derived from the decision of NBC to televise them, a decision that prompted some live coverage by CBS and ABC. Biden's hearings on Iraq, which begin this week, will occur in a transformed media environment and will be seen on multiple networks.

The hearings will be riveting, in part because Biden speaks with a forthrightness that is sometimes antic but often illuminating. He became a senator in January 1973, by which time the Senate had learned, regarding Vietnam, the difficulty--the impossibility, really--of controlling, legislatively or otherwise, a president's conduct of a war. But last week Biden spoke of changing the president's mind by "having his party walk away from his position." If the president this week announces a substantial and protracted escalation of the U.S. military effort in Baghdad, majorities in both houses of Congress will hotly oppose him. Most of his supporters--perhaps all of them not named Lieberman--will be Republicans, and will be tepid and wary. Democrats control Congress, but only congressional Republicans can perhaps control the president's policy.