At U.S. Naval War College, Scholar Likens Iraq to Plague

If anyone asks you why this is a great country, tell them this story.

Yesterday the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, opened its annual conference on international strategy with a speech from the Navy Secretary in a vast hall, followed by a panel on American power composed of three scholars, all of whom had opposed the war in Iraq. Indeed, in the biographical notes that were given out to the audience of officers—men and women wearing their dress whites—one of the scholars stated bluntly that he had written about the “folly of invading Iraq.”

For an hour the panelists gave their reasons for why they believe America will remain the most powerful country in the world well into this century, regardless of the morass in Iraq. There were about ten questions. The last one was from a Navy commander named Cladgett from Syracuse, who rose in the middle of the audience.

“My question to the panel is, What is the path to success in Iraq?”

There was a damburst of laughter in the audience, then the scholars took it on, one by one. The first, Stephen Walt of Harvard, said “This was a huge strategic blunder, there are no attractive plans forward.” The greatest danger—an international conflict in Iraq—would be there no matter when we left. The next man, Robert Art of Brandeis, said, he thought it was extremely important for America’s image in the Arab world not to have permanent bases in Iraq.

The last one to speak was the one who had used the word “folly” in the program: John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. Mearsheimer is 58. He told the audience that when he was a teenager, he had enlisted in the Army. Then he’d spent 1966-1970 at West Point. Then he said this:

I remember once in English class we read Albert Camus’s book The Plague. I didn’t know what The Plague was about or why we were reading it. But afterwards the instructor explained to us that The Plague was being read because of the Vietnam War. What Camus was saying in The Plague was that the plague came and went of its own accord. All sorts of minions ran around trying to deal with the plague, and they operated under the illusion that they could affect the plague one way or another. But the plague operated on its own schedule. That is what we were told was going on in Vietnam. Every time I look at the situation in Iraq today, I think of Vietnam, and I think of The Plague, and I just don’t think there’s very much we can do at this point. It is just out of our hands. There are forces that we don’t have control over that are at play, and will determine the outcome of this one. I understand that’s very hard for Americans to understand, because Americans believe that they can shape the world in their interests.

But I learned during the Vietnam years when I was a kid at West Point, that there are some things in the world that you just don’t control, and I think that’s where we’re at in Iraq.

The panel was over. For a moment or two there was stunned silence, and then applause—at once polite, sustained and thunderous.