WASHINGTON -- When late in the spring of 1940 people of southeastern England flocked across the Channel in their pleasure craft and fishing boats to evacuate soldiers trapped on Dunkirk beaches, euphoria swept Britain. So Prime Minister Winston Churchill sternly told the nation: "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.''
Or by curfews, such as the one that cooled the furies that engulfed Iraq after the bombing last week of a Shiite shrine. Wars are not won simply by facing facts, but facing them is a necessary prerequisite.
Last week, in the latest iteration of a familiar speech (the enemy is "brutal,'' "we're on the offensive,'' "freedom is on the march'') that should be retired, the president said, "This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people.'' Meaning what? Who is to choose, and by what mechanism? Most Iraqis already "chose'' -- meaning prefer -- peace. But in 1917 there were only a few thousand Bolsheviks among 150 million Russians -- and the Bolsheviks succeeded in hijacking the country for seven decades.
After Iraqis voted in December for sectarian politics, an observer said Iraq had conducted not an election but a census. Now America's heroic ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, one of two indispensable men in Iraq, has warned the Iraqi political class that unless the defense and interior ministries are nonsectarian, meaning not run as instruments of the Shiites, the U.S. will have to reconsider its support for Iraq's military and police. But that threat is not credible: U.S. strategy in Iraq by now involves little more than making the Iraqi military and police competent. As the president said last week: "Our strategy in Iraq is as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down.''
Iraq's prime minister responded to Khalilzad's warning by accusing him of interfering in Iraq's "internal affairs.'' Think about that, and about the distinction drawn by the U.S. official in Iraq who, evidently looking on what he considers the bright side, told Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins, "This isn't a war. It's violent nation-building.''
Almost three years after the invasion, it is still not certain whether, or in what sense, Iraq is a nation. And after two elections and a referendum on the constitution, Iraq barely has a government. A defining attribute of a government is that it has a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence. That attribute is incompatible with the existence of private militias of the sort that maraud in Iraq.
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in The Wall Street Journal, reports that Shiite militias "have broken up coed picnics, executed barbers (for the sin of shaving beards) and liquor store owners, instituted their own courts, and posted religious guards in front of girls' schools to ensure Iranian-style dress.'' Iraq's other indispensable man, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, says that unless the government can protect religious sites, "the believers will.''
When violence surges, if U.S. forces take the lead in suppressing it they delay the day when Iraqi forces will be competent. If U.S. forces hold back, they are blamed by an Iraqi population that is being infantilized by displacing all responsibilities onto the American occupation.
In The New Republic, Lawrence Kaplan, writing with a Baghdad dateline, says that only U.S. forces, which "have become an essential part of the landscape here -- their own tribe, in effect,'' can be "an honest broker'' between warring factions, "more peacekeeper than belligerent.'' But he also reports:
"With U.S reconstruction aid running out, Iraq's infrastructure, never fully restored to begin with, decays by the hour. ... The level of corruption that pervades Iraq's ministerial orbit ... would have made South Vietnam's kleptocrats blush. ... Corruption has helped drive every public service measure -- electricity, potable water, heating oil -- down below its prewar norm.''
Kaplan tells of a student who, seeing insurgents preparing a mortar attack, called a government emergency number. Fortunately for him, no one answered. Later, friends warned him that callers' numbers appear at the government's emergency office, and are sold to insurgents. The student took Kaplan to see a wall adorned with a picture and death announcement of a man whose call was answered.
Today, with all three components of the "axis of evil'' -- Iraq, Iran, North Korea -- more dangerous than they were when that phrase was coined in 2002, the country would welcome, and Iraq's political class needs to hear, as a glimpse into the abyss, presidential words as realistic as those Britain heard on June 4, 1940.