Iraq and Afghanistan have proven or are proving a fundamental flaw in American nation-building: unrealistic expectations.
It all began with the hubris on which the Project For The New American Century was constructed. P-NAC, the neo-con Montessori, had a vision of a world transformed by American economic and military might. It envisioned the creation of "wedge" nations in the Middle East, transformed into American mini-clones - secular, free enterprise, liberal democracies, with democratic constitutions and the rule of law, pro-West, and pro-Israel - little bastions among a sea of lesser nations by whose mere presence the others would, in turn, be transformed until the whole region was a shimmering mass of mirror-images of American democracy.
This philosophy became embedded in the Bush administration's approach to both Afghanistan and Iraq. It arrogantly assumed that the populations of these countries were ready and willing to adopt such sweeping reformation. This became Washington's delusion, one to which it still clings, the very essence of quagmire.
The Bush administration thought it merely had to topple the existing regime, pronounce the arrival of reformation and leave the details, the execution of the dream, to the locals. This was an assumption built on indifference, ignorance and the tragic belief in American exceptionalism.
Bush enabled the Northern Alliance to rout the Taliban. Then, his work done, he left a legion behind and prepared to move on to Iraq. Iraq was, likewise, supposed to be a hit-and-run, drive-by conquest. Defeat the Iraqi army, topple Saddam, put your own folks in power and split - six months at the outside. No need for 300,000 soldiers because there was to be no occupation. That wouldn't be necessary.
Five years after the 9/11 attacks Afghanistan is still unstable with an insurgency that now risks morphing into a civil war; Iraq is in the throes of civil war and at risk of partition; and al-Qaeda is resurgent and spreading with its leadership, notably bin Laden, still alive and well. This is more than a net sum loss.
It is the Bush administration's inability to shake its delusion that condemns these tragedies to continue, unresolved. The Bush/Cheney/neo-con cabal cannot and seemingly will not accept anything less than fealty from their doomed experiments. Stable governance and peace simply won't do, there isn't enough return in it.
The Bush regime is crippled by denial, still struggling for a goal beyond its reach while refusing to grasp accomplishments it can achieve. It's like a boy treading water while clutching a bag of gold that he refuses to let go. He can drop the gold and make it to the safety of the beach but he won't and so he sinks, winding up with neither the gold nor the beach.
Why should we care? Because the Western nations are all being dragged into this delusion, expected to play their part in one disaster or the other. We're constantly being hectored about carrying our weight as though we have some obligation to perpetuate this fantasy.
It would be terrific if this could all be turned around by adjusting expectations but it can't because the whole, miserable venture has been shaped by those very expectations and this state of denial has had too many years to take its toll. Are we to start again, sweep the slate clean? Do we invade Kabul, turf out Karzai and the warlords, arrest or destroy the corrupt security forces? That would seem to be child's play compared to the challenges of Baghdad.
No, we have to become realistic. There are too many forces in play in both of these countries that managing the overall conflicts is beyond our grasp. What is the purpose in fighting one war if everything we hope to achieve can be negated by other struggles beyond our influence? It is as purposeless as it seems.
Perhaps we should inventory our (Washington's) expectations and whittle them down to what can be achieved while having the courage to admit what is beyond our means and circumstances to achieve. Imagine what that would mean. It would mean giving up the idea of imposing secular democracy, of our concept of the rule of law, of the liberation of the peoples, especially their women, and the reversion of Afghanistan to medieval feudalism and Iraq to either tribal, mini-states or unified, strongman rule, out of which, eventually, they will find their own liberation.
What do we really need from these countries? I think we should be content with stability and effective governance. Modest as those goals sound, they're far ahead of where we are today. What's the point of having the people of Afghanistan vote for a government that is too often meaningless to them or even despised by them? How long can we allow the ongoing turmoil in Iraq to destabilize the entire Middle East? We've already wasted far too many years. It's time to set a new course, time to head for the safety of the beach.