The special issue of The New Republic that arrived in the other day's mail was devoted to the choices confronting American policymakers in Iraq. Its cover offered a smorgasbord of 17 different strategies, each served up with separate but equal assurance by a different pundit.
Just glancing at the complete table of contents, let alone going through the articles, was enough to give the reader a bad case of mental indigestion.
Where had I encountered such a profusion of advice before? Oh, yes, now it comes to me. It was during the Senate hearings on Iraq a few weeks ago, though they now seem years ago. Maybe because nothing fades faster from memory than a long seminar in a stuffy room.
If you watched those hearings or any part of them, they seemed curiously removed from bloody reality. It was as if the armchair generals in the Senate had gathered 'round to hear the real armchair generals.
The senators had the haggard sound of next-of-kin seeking a remedy for their patient's illness, or at least an end to his suffering. But all they could get from the surfeit of physicians was the equivalent of the warnings in small print that come with any prescription. Only, in this case the doctors couldn't agree on the prescription.
Of all the policy choices in Iraq being laid out, is there no sure guide? When in doubt - and who except the hopelessly cocksure wouldn't entertain some doubts where this war is concerned? - it might help to consult Churchill, who tasted little but defeat after defeat in the Second World War till somehow they all turned into victory.
In writing the history of that war, Sir Winston went through the dizzying array of factors that policymakers have to take into consideration when faced with hard choices. Then he added one more: "There is, however, one helpful guide, namely, for a nation to keep its word. Š This guide is called honor." Which was the one guide not followed when the democracies negotiated with the dictators at Munich, which would soon become synonymous with sell-out.
Follow the honorable course in Iraq? Easy to say, hard to do - some would say impossible to do.
What would an honorable course in Iraq look like? We might gain some idea by envisioning its opposite, the dishonorable course. That's the one constantly being put forward by the General Murthas and the growing number of Americans who are ready throw in the bloody towel and let the Iraqis stew in their own juices.
That is also the outcome America's enemies dream about and live for: a re-enactment of this country's "exit strategy" from Vietnam, which was more exit than strategy. After Henry Kissinger's indecent "decent interval," our ally was left to founder, then collapse.
The pictures of Vietnamese clinging to the struts of American helicopters as their hopes of freedom disappeared would have a powerful effect on our enemies long after the war was over. Honor cannot be sacrificed without cost. Even decades later.
There was one remarkable moment during those agonizing Senate hearings about what policy to pursue in Iraq. It came when John McCain, who has reason to know all too much about the Vietnam War, pointed out that Iraq is not Vietnam:
"We left Vietnam, it was over. We just had to heal the wounds of war. We leave this place, chaos in the region." And beyond. Because, as Sen. McCain warned his colleagues, our enemies will follow us home. To quote him, "I believe the consequences of failure (in Iraq) are catastrophic."
Catastrophic? Well, maybe only disastrous. The free world survived Munich, after all, and a long series of defeats after that. But at what a cost! Leave Iraq in disgrace and an old lesson will be taught much of the world once again: It may be dangerous to be America's enemy, but it is fatal to be her friend.
Talk about a profile in political courage: Is this the same John McCain who's about to run for president? Doesn't he know a presidential candidate is supposed to offer facile solutions, not still more sacrifice? Doesn't he know the course he advises, already unpopular, is bound to grow even more so as one test of American endurance follows another?
Why commit more troops even while the usual distinguished advisers prepare to recommend fewer? Naturally they won't call it defeat but something like Gradual Withdrawal, even though the effect will be the same. For when the Kissingers and Bakers turn up at the bedside of a patient in crisis, they come not so much as doctors but pallbearers.
Why then would John McCain have sounded his warning, and taken so unpopular a position? Maybe because he believes in honor. And because he knows that, though honor is but one guide among many in confusing times, it remains the surest.