In echo of Warren Harding's "A Return to Normalcy" speech of 1920, George Bush last week declared, "Normalcy is returning back to Iraq."
The term seemed a mite ironic. For, as Bush spoke, Iraqis were dying in the hundreds in the bloodiest fighting in months in Basra, the Shia militias of Moqtada al Sadr were engaging Iraqi and U.S. troops in Sadr City, and mortar shells were dropping into the Green Zone.
One begins to understand why Gen. Petraeus wants a "pause" in the pullout of U.S. forces, and why Bush agrees. This will leave more U.S. troops in Iraq on Inauguration Day 2009, than on Election Day 2006, when the country voted the Democrats into power to bring a swift end to the war.
A day before Bush went to the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, to speak of normalcy returning to Iraq, he was led down into "the Tank," a secure room at the Pentagon, to be briefed on the crisis facing the U.S. Army and Marine Corps because of the constant redeployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
As The Associated Press' Robert Burns reported, the Joint Chiefs "laid out their concerns about the health of the U.S. force." First among them is "that U.S. forces are being worn thin, compromising the Pentagon's ability to handle crises elsewhere in the world. ... The U.S. has about 31,000 troops in Afghanistan and 156,000 in Iraq."
"Five plus years in Iraq," the generals and admirals told Bush, "could create severe, long-term problems, particularly for the Army and Marine Corps."
In short, the two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are wearing down U.S. ground forces of fewer than 700,000, one in every six of them women, to such an extent U.S. commanders called Bush and Dick Cheney to a secret meeting to awaken them to the strategic and morale crisis.
This is serious business. With the Taliban revived and the violence in Iraq rising toward pre-surge levels, the Joint Chiefs are telling the commander in chief that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are worn out.
Crunch time is coming. And what is President Bush doing?
He is flying to Bucharest, Romania, to persuade Europe to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, which means a U.S. commitment to treat any Russian attack on Kiev or Tbilisi like an attack on Kansas or Texas.
Article V of the NATO treaty declares that "an armed attack against one or more (allies) shall be considered an attack against them all." Added language makes clear that the commitment to assist an ally is not unconditional. Rather, each signatory will assist the ally under attack with "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force."
Yet, it was understood during the Cold War that if a NATO ally like Norway, West Germany or Turkey, which bordered on the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact, were attacked, America would come to its defense.
Can any sane man believe the United States should go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia over Stalin's birthplace, Georgia?
Two provinces of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have seceded, with the backing of Russia. And there are 10 million Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east of that country, and Moscow and Kiev are at odds over which is sovereign on the Crimean Peninsula.
To bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO would put America in the middle of these quarrels. We could be dragged into a confrontation with Russia over Abkhazia, or South Ossetia, or who owns Sebastopol. To bring these ex-republics of the Soviet Union into NATO would be an affront to Moscow not unlike 19th century Britain bringing the Confederate state of South Carolina under the protection of the British Empire.
How would Lincoln's Union have reacted to that?
With a weary army and no NATO ally willing to fight beside us, how could we defend Georgia if Tbilisi, once in NATO, defied Moscow and invaded Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- and Russia bombed the Georgian army and capital? Would we declare war? Would we send the 82nd Airborne into the Pankisi Gorge?
Fortunately, Germany is prepared to veto any Bush attempt to put Ukraine or Georgia on a fast track into NATO. But President Bush is no longer the problem. John McCain is.
As Anatol Lieven writes in the Financial Times, McCain supports a restoration of Georgian rule over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. He wants to throw Russia out of the G-8 -- and talks flippantly of bombing Iran.
Says McCain, "I would institute a policy called 'rogue state rollback.' I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments."
Wonderful. A Second Crusade for Global Democracy. But with the Joint Chiefs warning of a war-weary Army and Marine Corps, who will fight all the new wars the neocons and their new champion have in store for us?