WASHINGTON -- There's an old Arab proverb about the mule and the minaret: "If you lead your mule to the top of the minaret," it says, "then you must lead him down again."
That saying rather coincidentally characterizes the American situation in Iraq today. Going UP the minaret -- invading Iraq with overwhelming force against a hollow and collapsing dictatorship -- was easy, because animals climb up with far more agility than they head down.
Forcing the mule to clamber DOWN from the tower -- to get out of Iraq with any modicum of dignity, and leave some semblance of a functioning country behind -- is infinitely harder. And that's not only where we are now, but it's just about all we have left.
In the bitter house-to-house fighting of the last few months, the American mission in Iraq has gone from idle, wanton illusions of "democratization" and the tired Vietnam-era mantra of "winning hearts and minds" to simply exercising such brute force that Iraqis will choose to vote in January and we can then get out.
The corollary is that, instead of acting as an attracting force for good, we have become a destructive force so immense (the air bombardments of cities such as Fallujah, Najaf and others, designed to save American lives, are terrifying to people on the ground) that Iraqis are compelled to vote or to keep us there forever.
One expert in the Army and the private sector characterizes this moment in The Washington Post: "It has evolved into one big vendetta -- a blood feud between us and the Sunnis." Jonathan Schell, who wrote sensitively and wisely about Vietnam, now asks in The Nation, "What Happened to Hearts?" And then answers: "The people of Iraq will be stricken with fear, or to use another word that's very popular these days, terror. Then they'll be ready to vote."
As always happens when individuals or armies get into long conflicts with others whose values and principles are vastly different from theirs, we have, by choosing to fight in such a torn and cruel place, taken on some of their characteristics, instead of their taking on ours. That's what happens when you invade minarets.
A good friend of mine -- a prominent and wise American diplomat -- recently commented to me on the new American soldier in Iraq: "I was surprised by them. They're professional warriors, more Hessians than traditional American soldiers." I thought at that moment that there will be many more changes that will become evident in America, and Americans, before this purposeless, but costly, war ends.
Which brings us, just two months before the much-vaunted elections of Jan. 30, to the question of ending. Is this war, indeed, going to "end"? Can it still be "won"? What does "winning" mean in a non-country, in a mirage-laden desert, among a congeries of tribes, clans and conflicting absolute religious truths who have been at peace only when forced to by brutal dictatorships? Can we "win" -- or at least leave with one huge existential Band-Aid over the country, giving the pretense of a country taped together?
There is still the chance that enough Iraqis could vote, supposing they are not too terrified by the insurgents to do so, to give the sense of a people asserting itself. There is still the chance that we could then, under even a half-vote, say the people's will has been heard -- and now, let's go home. (What about those "enduring bases" we're building in Iraq? Nobody seems to know.)
But then there is the other chance. Last week in Mosul, virtually the entire Iraqi police force and several National Guard units, which are supposed to be the protectors of the "new Iraq," deserted. When we took down Fallujah, insurgents simply moved to other towns. One American soldier, Lt. Col. Todd McCaffrey, calls this guerrilla war "still a toddler." There is the chance that the elections will fail, and that the Americans could be surrounded in their compounds, cut off from the Baghdad Airport (as we are now), and even have whole units destroyed.
At NATO several weeks ago, officers who are friendly to the United States told me that when the U.S. went into Iraq, "we wondered -- will this be the destruction of the American Army?" This is not uncommon talk around the world.
One old maxim about guerrilla warfare is that "the guerrilla wins by not losing." Nobody says they're losing.
An American commander in Iraq said, "We've broken the back of the insurgency." But octopi don't have backs.
American planners might have contemplated before going to war that the history of counterinsurgency warfare since World War II is one of misery and ultimate failure, whether it was France in Indochina and Algeria, the U.S. in Vietnam, Israel in the Occupied Territories or the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya. (Only the British in Malaysia were half-successful, and that was for very special reasons.)
You see, it all goes back to that problem of the mule and the minaret. If you knew the nature of the mule, you wouldn't try to lead him up the minaret to start with.
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