NATIONS find it infinitely more difficult to get out of wars and military occupations than to get into them. The British stayed in Palestine trying to bring political reconciliation for years after it was clear that nobody wanted to reconcile. The French clung on to Algeria long after it became hopeless. It took the Americans five years to clear their troops out of Vietnam after they had decided to throw in the towel.
Today, President Bush clings to David Petraeus as if the general were the administration's rabbit foot. "Buying time for Iraqis to reconcile," was the way Petraeus originally described his mission, and according to that measure there has been no progress at all.
Statistics on levels of violence have been as messaged as was the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction before Iraq was invaded. Bush says Anbar Province is "one of the safest places in Iraq," while others say that it is the second most dangerous place for Americans after Baghdad.
As soldier-scholar Andrew Bacevich has written: "the cult of David Petraeus exists not because the general has figured out the war, but because hiding behind the general allows the Bush administration to postpone the day when it must reckon with the consequences of its abject failure in Iraq."
Congress isn't quite where it was in 1968 when General William Westmoreland stood before it asking for more troops to throw into the Vietnam War. This Congress has neither the will nor the votes to bring America's war in Iraq to a close.
So we will proceed with September's ritualistic reports, debates, and congressional testimonies, and the war will drag on. General Petraeus and America's ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, serve the administration and would have to be superhuman to stick their arms into what Bush biographer Robert Draper has called "the fiercely whirring gears of Team Bush's institutionalized optimism." Yes, a few troops will be brought home, either as passengers to be thrown off the back of the sled to the antiwar wolves, or, because as Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey has said, "the tempo of our deployments are not sustainable." That's military speak for saying the Army risks being broken in Iraq if we don't let up.
As the oft-stated goal of Iraqi national reconciliation continues to falter, the administration finds other ways to sustain optimism. The flavor of the month is the tribes of Anbar Province who have turned against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia - a good development, to be sure, but hardly the harbinger of a pacified, united Iraq. Does anyone believe that these US-supplied arms will not be used against the predominantly Shia government when the time comes?
Mistaking a marriage of convenience for true love, President Bush pathetically said of the tribal chiefs after his lightning visit to Anbar: "They were profuse in their praise for America."
Meanwhile, Iraq's population - often the best educated and talented - continues to hemorrhage into neighboring countries. The desert people will one day equal the boat people of the Vietnam exodus both in numbers and personal tragedies.
The administration rails against Iran, as if Iranian interference were the cause of its failures. If Iraqi Shiite militias are using Iranian weapons, as Americans keep insisting, the help that Sunni insurgents are getting from our Arab friends seldom seems to find its way into Bush's speeches.
In truth, the mountain of arms that American forces failed to secure when they invaded could keep the insurgency going forever. The Government Accountability Office reported that 110 Kalashnikovs that we gave to Iraqi security forces went missing. It was Petraeus himself who made the decision to give weapons to Iraqis without a formal tracking system. "We made the decision to arm guys who wanted to fight for their country," Petraeus said. Maybe so, but their version of fighting for their country might not coincide with the general's. Many of the Iraqis he trained defected to the insurgents.
Gertrude Bell, that formidable English woman who had as much to do with the formation of modern Iraq after World War I as anybody, once wrote: "Political Union is a conception unfamiliar to a society which is still highly colored by its tribal origins and maintains in its midst so many strongly disruptive elements of tribal organization." She was writing about pan-Arab unity, and she tried to overcome her own misgivings when it came to Iraq. But her words echo down the decades.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.