The hinge of fate in Iraq

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

On June 25 the fol­low­ing res­o­lu­tion was tabled in the House: “That this House, while pay­ing trib­ute to the hero­ism and en­durance of the Armed Forces in cir­cum­stances of ex­cep­tional dif­fi­culty, has no con­fi­dence in the cen­tral di­rec­tion of the war.”

That would be June 25, 1942. The House would be the House of Com­mons in Lon­don, Eng­land. And the gov­ern­ment in which no con­fi­dence was ex­pressed was that of Win­ston Churchill.

Al­most three years into World War II, re­peated mil­i­tary fail­ures had in­duced con­sid­er­able war fa­tigue in Bri­tain. In Fe­bru­ary, Sin­ga­pore fell to the Ja­panese with 25,000 Bri­tish troops be­ing taken pris­oner. In March, Ran­goon fell. This was vastly dam­ag­ing to Churchill’s pres­tige in Wash­ing­ton, as Ran­goon was the only port through which could be shipped aid to China’s Chi­ang Kai-shek — a very high pri­or­ity for the United States in Asia.

In April, the Ja­panese navy drove the Royal Navy all the way back to East Africa and shelled the Bri­tish In­dian coastal cities.

Then on June 21, 1942, To­bruk in North Africa fell to Gen. Er­win Rom­mel, with 33,000 Bri­tish pris­on­ers taken and the Suez Canal (Bri­tain’s life­line to her Asian em­pire and oil) threat­ened.

A week later Churchill strug­gled to win that vote of no con­fi­dence. But shrewd po­lit­i­cal ob­servers in Lon­don at the time (very much in­clud­ing Churchill him­self) be­lieved he was one more lost bat­tle away from be­ing re­moved from of­fice — or at best stripped of his min­is­ter of de­fense cabi­net pow­ers and ren­dered a mere fig­ure­head leader.

But dur­ing those months Churchill had been busy fir­ing or re­as­sign­ing the gen­er­als who were not bring­ing vic­to­ries: in­clud­ing Gens. Wavell, Dill, Auchin­leck, Ritchie, Nor­rie, Brooke-Popham, Messervy and Cor­bett — among oth­ers.

Fi­nally he found a gen­eral who could win — Bernard Law Mont­gomery. And at the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber of 1942 Mont­gomery beat Rom­mel and started the drive west across the rim of Africa, fi­nally driv­ing Rom­mel and his Afrika Corp clear off the con­ti­nent. Both for Churchill’s gov­ern­ment and the even­tual vic­tory in WWII, El Alamein was the “hinge of fate.” As Churchill said: “Be­fore Alamein we never had a vic­tory. Af­ter Alamein we never had a de­feat.”

I won­der whether, per­haps, in Gen. David Pe­traeus Pres­i­dent Bush has fi­nally found his Gen. Mont­gomery and whether Gen. Pe­traeus’ new strat­egy and suc­cess at beat­ing al Qaeda in Iraq and grow­ing suc­cess against the Mahdi Army may be his El Alamein.

Wars are curious things. Cer­tainly, as Mr. Bush and many of his sup­port­ers have cru­elly learned, vic­to­ries can­not re­li­ably be pre­dicted. But as Sen. Harry Reid, the con­gres­sional Democrats (and a grow­ing num­ber of Repub­li­cans) may soon learn, nei­ther can one re­li­ably pre­dict de­feat.

Of course, there are vast dif­fer­ences be­tween World War II and the cur­rent Iraq Theater of the War on Ter­ror (ITWOT). For one thing, in 1942 the Bri­tish par­lia­men­tar­i­ans were not propos­ing bring­ing the Bri­tish troops home and sur­ren­der­ing to Hitler and the Ja­panese. They merely thought an­other leader (per­haps Sir Stafford Cripps) might bet­ter lead Bri­tain to vic­tory.

Were they more pa­tri­otic than the cur­rent de­featists in Wash­ing­ton? Per­haps. Or per­haps it was just that they un­der­stood (at least by that ter­ri­ble sum­mer of 1942) that for Eng­land, it was vic­tory or death — while for many of the Wash­ing­ton de­featists in this dis­mal sum­mer of ’07 they are un­der the delu­sion that Amer­ica in all its might and glory can sim­ply sur­ren­der to al Qaeda with­out po­ten­tially mor­tal con­se­quences.

And there is an­other dif­fer­ence be­tween this war and most pre­vi­ous ones. De­spite the great ad­vances in telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in the last 70 years, it is much harder to­day to ac­tu­ally know what is hap­pen­ing in Iraq — and the sig­nif­i­cance of what we do know.

When the Bri­tish pub­lic learned that Sin­ga­pore had fallen and 25,000 troops were taken pris­oner, that was un­am­bigu­ously a bad de­feat. Bri­tain had no sig­nif­i­cant po­si­tion left in East Asia. The op­po­site was the case when it was clear that Rom­mel was in re­treat. Then my par­ents and their fel­low coun­try­men knew that Suez was safe — and the oil and troops would still flow from Bri­tain’s Mid­dle East and South Asian Em­pire.

But what are we to make of a sui­cide bomb go­ing off in Bagh­dad? Or what are we to make of a re­port that our troops have re­taken (per­haps just for the mo­ment) some dusty desert vil­lage from the in­sur­gents or ter­ror­ists? Does the for­mer put us ma­te­ri­ally closer to de­feat, or does the lat­ter make us ma­te­ri­ally closer to vic­tory? As this is a bat­tle for hearts and minds rather than ge­o­graphic spots or or­ga­nized troops, it is hard to take the mea­sure of such news as seeps out of Iraq.

Thus for both the de­featists and the war hawks, we tend to bring our hopes or fears (and for some their par­ti­san hopes) to the anal­y­sis of events — rather than ra­tio­nal as­sess­ment of ob­jec­tive war facts.

So last week’s New York Times ar­ti­cle by Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion ex­perts ar­gu­ing that we may yet be able to win the war has sent a tidal wave of hope through the pro-war camp and a chill down the backs of the Demo­cratic Party de­featists. If it’s true, the hinge of fate un­ex­pect­edly may be swing­ing — knock­ing over many in its great arc.

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