Paul Greenberg

"The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see (evil's) final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices."

--C.S. Lewis, "The Screwtape Letters"

Call it déjà vu, the feeling that we've been here before, that events in the news are happening again, only with a new cast. This flashback could be titled Iraq Agonistes, except it's no play. It is all too real. For those are real people suffering and dying, and real diplomats and generals, presidents and pundits, senators and senior advisers ... all proudly displaying their gobsmacked ineptitude.

There is something eerily, depressingly familiar about the latest news from the state formerly known as Iraq as this all too familiar tragedy is re-enacted in a different setting with a different suffering people.

The players may have changed, but not the tragedy. Indeed, the plot is so familiar you can almost see the audience yawning and heading for the exits. ("Not this sad show again!") In these fast-moving or rather fast-collapsing days for the "republic" of Iraq, some of us wake up every morning with the idle thought: Is there still an Iraq? And if so, who cares?

All the old, blood-soaked scenes of an earlier performance by the same theatrical company -- let's dub it the Washington Players -- return like a recurrent nightmare: the agony of friends and allies who counted on us only to be abandoned, the innocents caught in the crossfire, the usual parade of mutual atrocities, and a nebulous government whose power and authority is not just eroding but disappearing every day, every hour, every minute. No matter how much its remaining leaders may deny it.

How long before these leaders, too, become former leaders and retreat to their villas in the south of France, and give interviews explaining how right they were all along? Much like Jimmy Carter still trying to justify the malaise he presided over in his now almost forgotten day.

It's been almost a decade now since peace was restored after an earlier crisis in Iraq and then maintained at the cost of still more American blood and treasure. But now the violent bear it away again. And we in this blessed country enable the violent everywhere by our indifference, aided and abetted as always by the steady current of isolationism that flows deep in the American ethos. We never seem to learn.

From the moment our failing president tried to justify his hasty withdrawal from Iraq by telling us everything was just fine and dandy over there, it hasn't been. And by now things have grown much worse. But that didn't stop him from declaring Mission Accomplished:

"Everything that American troops have done in Iraq -- all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering -- all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people." --Barack Obama, Fort Bragg, N.C., December 14, 2011.

Sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq is now any anything but, and never has been while this president was supposedly in charge -- in large part because of his leadership, or rather lack of same.

Once again we watch as a demoralized army's retreat turns into a rout, neighboring states circle like vultures to pick up the choicer pieces for themselves, and any remaining islands of stability and refuge are overrun -- by a flood of refugees they cannot cope with.

Even the reactions from Washington are tinged with the same old excuses for inaction. These days they come with an almost desperate air as this administration tries to evade responsibility for what has happened in the power vacuum it created when it decided to withdraw from still another part of the world. Even if the scenes we recall today aren't from the Middle but the Far East.

Remember Saigon 1975? How long will it be before the television cameras again record American disgrace as the last panic-stricken civilians try to clamber aboard the last helicopter leaving the American embassy, this time in Baghdad instead of Saigon?

Our president and "commander-in-chief" has decreed no more boots on the ground in Iraq. That policy is the big problem. But as that former country disintegrates, he has relented to the extent of ordering more troops to protect our embassy in Baghdad. It's a step up from the administration's fecklessness at Benghazi, but only a small step. Let's hope it will be enough to protect our people now on the front lines, but hope is scarcely an adequate substitute for a foreign policy.

Meanwhile, scenes from the tragedy enacted in Vietnam decades ago continue to recur -- right down to mission creep. The White House has ordered 300 "military advisers" to Iraq, which is just the way our misadventure in Vietnam started. The one thing worse than a shameful withdrawal overseas may be an uncertain one that leaves everyone guessing whether we're leaving or going back in.

This administration, which looks more and more like only a collection of slow learners, lacks the one essential requisite for a thoughtful and effective foreign policy: constancy of purpose. Instead, an American administration is reduced once again to buck-passing as it is obliged to make ad-hoc decisions in response to one immediate crisis after another, the total effect of which is to invite more crises.

Confronted by such disarray in Washington once again, what useful judgment can any observer make except a slow, sad shake of the head? Yes, will we ever learn?

"Stand by your friends, and stand up to bullies."

--Margaret Thatcher


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.