I think he's right. If we could know that the war we are fighting would come to an end at midnight, we could do a balance sheet.
But the war will not be over at midnight. We do not know when it will be over and what we will then have accumulated in war dead and treasury depleted, and we do not know for sure what the scene in Iraq will be like when we are through.
A good subject for a seminar at the National War College would be: Was it a good idea to go to war in March 2003?
The affirmative will seek to carry the case by one simple, and hardly unpersuasive, proposition: If your intelligence informs you that an aggressive tyrant has in hand or prospectively in hand weapons of ultimate destructiveness, the United States has no alternative but to proceed by military intervention.
The negative would say: Unless there is reason to suspect an enemy timetable threatening action in days or weeks, one should deliberate alternatives to military intervention, including the possibility that the intelligence is defective.
That debate-seminar will be waged for decades, but not on the presidential election scene. President Bush can't acknowledge, while we are fighting day by day in Iraq, that the very reason for the military engagement is questionable. And Senator Kerry, having at last found a political roost, is not going to stray from it. So we are left with:
We shouldn't have.
We should have.
We need a program of withdrawal.
We have one. A graduated withdrawal is what we are effecting by staying the course.
Supporters of the war who don't have to engage in presidential debates with two-minute deadlines should feel free to acknowledge that if retrospective analysis is permitted, it is impossible to maintain that to have acted in March '03 was wise. But failure to justify the launching of the war does not discredit it. The French spring offensive in 1917 should never have been undertaken, but that didn't discredit the war. Field Marshal Montgomery's bridge-too-far air attack of September 1944 was disastrous, but didn't impair the Allied rationale.
President Bush is saddled with a war the evolution of which he can't retroactively reshape. His difficulty will lie in telling the public what should now be done. But this is a difficulty Kerry also has. Who has an answer to how to save the next American hostage from decapitation? The leverage Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has over U.S. thought and feeling is blindingly exploited by the simple sadism of the blindfolded hostage and the executioner's ax -- a viewer of the video reports that those screams will stay in memory forever. What is to be done about that?
There is nothing Kerry can do in the campaign to persuade a majority of American voters that the way to compensate for mistakes of the past generated by unreliable intelligence is to abandon an enterprise to which we are morally committed. Abandoning Vietnam is a historic deed we have yet to reconcile with U.S. idealism. We handle that problem by the expedient of not thinking about it. But Iraq is a mind-filling challenge that can't be made to disappear.