Thomas L. Knapp

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Wishes, horses, small men and big lies
by Thomas L. Knapp


If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
-- proverb, provenance unknown


There's a lot to be disturbed about in post-9/11 America.

Al Qaeda's terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shattered forever the illusion that the U.S. is some kind of "safe zone," beyond the reach of the evil and violence that the rest of the world has taken for granted for more than half a century. Or did it?

"This changes everything" -- the attribution of the quote has become lost in the fog of Internet me-tooism, but I've variously heard it ascribed to a CNN reporter, George W. Bush, and two or three other prominent politicians -- pretty much sums the situation up, in the breach as well as the observance.

Color-coded terror alerts. Taking off one's shoes at the airport. Armed troops patrolling lower Manhattan. A lot has changed, little of it for the better, and most of taking the form of simple acceleration in the same direction it was going anyway.

Americans -- and even a surprising number of people in the freedom movement -- seem to have fallen under some kind of credulity spell. They wander in a fog of belief, operating less on the evidence in front of their very eyes than on the premise that wishing will make it so, and, even more disturbingly, on the premise that wishing did make it so.

Exhibit A, of course, is Baghdad.

Yesterday (Wednesday, April 9, 2003), the messages started filling my inbox: breathless "it's over" messages referring to a dog-and-pony show held in the Iraqi capital. Marines toppled a statue of Saddam. A made-to-order crowed cheered and waved.

One prominent libertarian writer who should have known better proclaimed it "VI Day." Another correspondent smugly referred readers to my article of March 27th, "Thinking the unthinkable," in which I articulated the possibility that the U.S. might face military defeat. He apparently thinks that events have discredited that article. Hold that thought -- we'll be coming back to it.

As the celebration proceeded in Fardos Square, Marines fought for their lives -- and at least one fell -- attempting to dislodge Iraqi fighters from another of Saddam's presidential palaces.

U.S. forces control some sectors (a minority of them) of Baghdad. Other sectors are under the control of what's left of the Iraqi government. Still others appear to have been seized, and appear to be being fortified, by foreign fighters drawn from around the Arab world and intent on resisting the U.S. invasion. And there are, no doubt, parts of Baghdad where no discernible authority exists at all.

Even Donald Rumsfeld and others at DoD and CENTCOM are, for once, exercising restraint in their claims -- pointing out that the tip of the U.S. spear still lies at the end of a vulnerable supply line, that subduing Baghdad may take months, that Saddam Hussein's home area of Tikrit is still untaken and that most of Iraq has yet to feel the footfall of American troops.

Rumsfeld et al can afford such candor because the wishing will make it so phenomenon guarantees that their remarks will go unheeded. All that will be remembered, for the nonce, are the agitprop displays -- the sober assessments are made so that they can be pulled out when the defecation next intersects the oscillating blades. "See? I told you so. It's not my fault that you were listening to what came out the left side of my mouth instead of the right side." Small men tell big lies, and mix in just enough truth to hide beneath when those lies come crashing down around them.

As I typed the paragraph above, the news came in of a suicide attack in Baghdad -- several casualties and, apparently, at least one more American death. It remains to be seen whether the wishing will make it so tide will temporarily recede to be replaced, once again, by the wishing will make it so phenomenon, or not. At this point, it doesn't really matter -- the two phenomena will have several years in which to play out against each other in Iraq.


I'd like to focus, for the moment, on the wishing did make it so phenomenon exclusively. The War Party has made a lot of hay lately by bringing up Afghanistan. "See, it went easy, just like Afghanistan -- the naysayers are 0 for 2."

This kind of rhetoric requires considerably more testicular fortitude than the "cover my ass" remarks of Rumsfeld et al, for the simple reason that the wishing did make it so phenomenon burns away like fog under a hot sun the instant one digs past the Iraq headlines and simply reads the news. Unfortunately, the War Party seems to be correct in its assumption that few Americans will fall off of the wishing will make it so bandwagon for long enough to do so.

18 months into the occupation of Afghanistan, U.S. troops are finding out, the hard way, what their Soviet counterparts found out two decades ago.

The Taliban, through affiliated tribal warlords, still holds sway over most of the country. Officials of the U.S.-installed government are assassinated with disconcerting regularity. U.S. troops can't leave their fortified bases without being fired upon -- and a concerted Taliban offensive is expected to come in with the spring.

Here's a small sampling from just the first week in April:

None of these stories, of course, get much attention from Americans. After all, Afghanistan was an unalloyed victory, followed by the creation of a robust democracy. Right? Wishing did make it so, you see, even though it isn't so.

The same will almost certainly be true of Iraq 18 months from now. The signs are there already. In "Thinking the unthinkable," I pointed out that all Iraq needed to do to secure eventual victory was to hold out until it secured allies.

Those allies are now parked behind machine guns in Baghdad. It is likely that Saddam, or his successor, is already setting up a government-in-exile in Damascaus, Sanaa or some other city safely beyond the reach -- for the moment -- of the US forces.

It is also likely that that government-in-exile will enjoy de facto, if not de jure, recognition and support from most of the Arab and Muslim states. The U.S. overestimated the importance of Saddam's cult of personality and underestimated the sway that Ba'athism holds over the Arab people. The Iraqis will tolerate the occupation for as long as they have to ... and the status quo ante will likely prevail when that occupation ends. Miltary prowess does not guarantee the fulfillment of war aims.

It is certain beyond any shadow of a doubt that the U.S. troops will, sooner or later, pack their gear, board their ships and sail from the ports of Kuwait. It is becoming more and more likely that, as they evacuate the government complex in Baghdad, the old tenants will return and take up right where they left off. Given the U.S. war aims, that eventuality will constitute U.S. defeat under any reasonable criteria of what "victory" and "defeat" mean.

Something in the American psyche died on 9/11. That something seems to have been the natural, necessary skepticism which has always permeated the American relationship with government, rather than the false sense of safety that such skepticism served to mitigate.

Before 9/11, any government pronouncement was subject to scrutiny. Now, wishing will make it so. And, even when that dictum fails to prove out, the facts are conveniently replaced with a mental sticky-note to the effect that wishing did make it so.

That beggar's wishing is a pale horse indeed. Behold the emperor astride it, in his new clothes.

April 10, 2003