THE DIS-UNIT ED STATES; Not since Vietnam Has the U.S. Been So Divided, with a Growing Number of Prominent Americans Agreeing That History Will Judge Iraq Their Nation's Greatest Blunder

Article excerpt

Byline: MAX HASTINGS

A MORNING in the sunshine of Washington, DC. The usual crowd in sweatshirts and shorts, sneakers and tracksuits, slacks and jumpers is shuffling past the long, black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Its power lies in its simplicity. From end to end, 493ft 6in of marble records the names of 58,241 American men and eight women who died in the Indochina war.

Almost four million visitors paid homage here last year. On this October day, my wife heard a middle-aged woman say wonderingly: 'And now, we are in Iraq. Will we never learn?' President George W. Bush answered her and her kind last week when he said sternly: 'There is always a temptation, in the midst of a long struggle, to seek the quiet life, to escape the duties and problems, and to hope that the enemy grows weary of fanaticism and tired of murder.

'This would be a pleasant world; but it's not the world we live in . . . In Iraq, there will be no peace without victory. We will keep our nerve, and we will win.' There was applause, of course, because this was America, and it was the nation's Chief Executive who delivered the message of defiance. Yet not since Vietnam has there been a time when the nation is so troubled and divided by events abroad.

This weekend, the Iraqi people vote in a referendum on their new constitution.

Optimists proclaim it as a vital step towards creating a stable government for Iraq, amid the havoc wrought by the suicide bombers.

But in the U.S., whatever the referendum's outcome, deep dismay will persist about Bush's governance. Opinion poll approval ratings for the President have slumped to 38 per cent.'This is a disaster for him,' says a Washington columnist who once supported Bush. 'He cannot come back from it.' General Barry McCaffrey, one of America's most prominent retired soldiers who led a division in the first Gulf War, describes the Bush administration as 'the biggest collection of idiots we've had in public office in 50 years'.

He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq but now says: 'Most citizens in this country have decided that the Bush people have no idea what they're doing.'

JIM STEINBURG, one of the ablest foreign policy advisers to the Clinton administration, believes that 'in Iraq, we have unleashed forces that will take a generation to play out. There will be either a hot or cold civil war.

Bush is in a lot of trouble'.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that all the most influential thinkers in Washington have despaired of Iraq.

Whatever their anger about the blunders made by the administration, and especially by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they are so appalled by the likely consequences should the U.S. cut and run that they cling to hopes that something can be salvaged.

'Welcome to the 100-year war in Iraq,' said a friend, who conducts military analysis for the Pentagon, with some bitterness. He meant that this is a mess unlikely to have any early or happy conclusion; that America's troubles - which mean all our troubles - with the Muslim world are just beginning.

He gave me a copy of an unpublished report he has compiled on the administration's-policy mistakes in Iraq.

In particular, it focuses on the fact that since 2003, the Bush government has wilfully ignored every historical lesson about how to wage war and make peace.

He highlights the American invasion of Panama in 1989, where the mistakes almost exactly mirror those made in Iraq 14 years later.

America removed the dictator, General Noriega, then walked away from the ensuing shambles in that poverty- stricken country, including an estimated [pounds sterling]800million-worth of looting.

Panama is today forgotten by the world, but its economy has never recovered.

My friend's devastating report concludes: 'What the American people have seen in too many of their leaders over the past two years are little men - little men whose arrogance and hubris have led them to discard the lessons of the past, little men who have placed political expedience and survival in office above the national interest. …