Scene: A bar in a New Hampshire hotel at the end of a long day.
Eager reporter: What are you drinking?
Would-be presidential candidate: Beer.
R: Barkeep, two beers! (Pause) So what’s your answer to the question?
C: The question?
R: The one you better be ready to answer: Knowing what you know today, would you support the invasion of Iraq back in 2003?
C: Good God, no. But, look, the issue here isn’t whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Obviously, he didn’t. So what? People — even politicians — make honest mistakes.
R: So it’s let bygones be bygones?
C: Not at all. But you media types are harping on the wrong question.
R: Give me the right one.
C: What should we learn from the experience? Iraq happened. Bad scene all around. What does it teach?
C: Isn’t it obvious? Although ours is the greatest military in the world — no doubt about it — it didn’t win. We assigned the troops mission impossible — nation-building in a nation that refuses to be built. What Iraq should teach is humility.
R: I’m listening.
C: A dozen years ago Americans believed that nothing could stop our mighty military machine. We — not just George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – thought that American power could fix the Middle East. Getting rid of Saddam was going to make things better for everybody. Iraq would be free. Democracy would flourish. Change would come to the rest the Arab world.
R: It didn’t happen.
C: Not even close. Iraq was a train wreck. Thousands of Americans killed, tens of thousands wounded, and a couple trillion dollars wasted. I’d mention the far larger numbers of Iraqis killed, injured, and displaced but Iraqis don’t vote in our primaries. The result? Today, the Middle East is worse off than when Bush decided to take down Saddam. That’s what eight plus years of war got us.
R: What went wrong?
C: Well, the easy answer is to blame Bush or blame Barack Obama — take your pick. In reality, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Do you want complicated or simple?
R: I’m a journalist. Give me simple.
C: This country expects easy answers to tough questions. One such question is how to maintain a modicum of stability and decency in this deeply troubled world of ours. For decades now we’ve nursed the illusion that military power is an all-purpose, take-care-of-everything tool. So we shovel money at the Pentagon by the boatload. We send US forces hither and yon. We bomb whoever we think needs bombing. Guess what? That approach hasn’t worked and won’t work. For Exhibit A, see Iraq. That’s the war’s big lesson: What we euphemistically call national security policy doesn’t produces security. Just the opposite. And in the end, guess who pays the price?
R: The troops?
R: Hey, this is terrific. Can I quote you?
C: Not a chance. This conversation is strictly off the record.
R: Huh? This is important. You need to come clean. You owe it to the American people.
C: What are you — stupid? I’m trying to run for president here. Nobody wants the truth. Gotta run — thanks for the beer.
Andrew J. Bacevich is writing a military history of America’s war for the Greater Middle East.