The Long View 2005-11-21: The Rally for Marshal Pétain

By Marcel Baschet (1862-1941) - L'illustration, n° 5074 du 1er juin 1940, Public Domain,

By Marcel Baschet (1862-1941) - L'illustration, n° 5074 du 1er juin 1940, Public Domain,

It was unfair of John to associate Lt. General William Odom with Marshal Pétain, although John did at least go out of his way to give Pétain some credit. In retrospect, Odom sounds like he was right.

The Rally for Marshal Pétain

As I have elsewhere had occasion to remark, 50 USC Section 407 forbids the expenditure of federal money to devise contingency plans under which the United States would surrender to an enemy. That provision, of course, applies only to the Executive Branch, so it would not apply to the sort of legislative debate that Democratic Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha began when he proposed a resolution in favor of a rapid US withdrawal from Iraq. (The Republican leadership immediately emended the resolution to "immediate withdrawal," which was soundly defeated: a stunt, of course, but then it also forced Congress to acknowledge what it was actually taking about.) In any case, the fact that the heretofore obscure Congressman Murtha took the lead on this matter has some interesting historical resonance.

Murtha, as the world beyond Pennsylvania was immediately informed, is a Marine Corps veteran. This personal history is supposed to give his views greater credibility, or even immunity from criticism:

"I like guys who got five deferments and have never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what ought to be done," Murtha said.

It is an old principle of politics that opposition to a distasteful policy will be minimized if the step is taken by a leader of the party that finds it distasteful. As the saying goes, "Only Nixon could go to China." By this logic, then, the best person to conclude a surrender would be a leader with a respected military career. This was exactly the logic that made Henri-Philippe Pétain the French premier in 1940.

Marshal Pétain was a genuine hero of the First World War. In that war of attrition, he had a reputation for not wasting the lives of his men. His gift was the defense of territory while minimizing French losses. After the war, he became a gray eminence: a man of the Right, but generally respected by all parties. He was more than willing to help when the Third Republic was overrun:

Outvoted, Reynaud resigned and President Albert Lebrun, appointed Petain as France's new premier. He immediately began negotiations with Adolf Hitler and on 22nd June signed an armistice with Germany. The terms of the agreement divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones, with a rigid demarcation line between the two. The Germans would directly control three-fifths of the country, an area that included northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining section of the country would be administered by the French government at Vichy under Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain.

The interesting thing about the Vichy Armistice is that it was actually a very good result, considering the French negotiating position. It kept the French state and administrative structure intact. France continued to function as an independent diplomatic actor. It even preserved the French empire, at least as far as the Germans were concerned. The US law against government funding of surrender studies was passed when someone on the federal payroll was tactless enough to suggest that, should the US lose a nuclear war, we would be lucky to get an agreement for the US as good as the one Henri-Philippe Pétain obtained for France.

* * *

Surrender may be a misnomer in this context of the Terror War, however, because it implies an enemy that would be willing and able to accept one. For that reason, arguments by people in the US for withdrawal from Iraq tend to be a bit self-referential, as we see in the list of reasons for withdrawal recently published by yet another retired military figure, William E. Odom, a former Air Force general. He has actually been saying these things for quite some time, without reference to the state of things on the ground in Iraq, but his latest pronouncements got media coverage because of the Murtha incident. Some points from the latest restatement of his argument run like this.(He has always liked numbered lists, apparently):

1) On civil war. Iraqis are already fighting Iraqis. Insurgents have killed far more Iraqis than Americans. That’s civil war. We created the civil war when we invaded; we can’t prevent a civil war by staying...

Certainly it is a goal of the terror campaign to start a civil war; it is also clear that the goal has not yet been reached. Should open war break out, of course, it can hardly be a matter of indifference to the US who wins it. But moving along...

3) On the insurgency and democracy. There is no question the insurgents and other anti-American parties will take over the government once we leave. But that will happen no matter how long we stay. Any government capable of holding power in Iraq will be anti-American, because the Iraqi people are increasingly becoming anti-American.

The logic behind this is obscure. The base of the insurgency is the Arab Sunnis, a fifth of the population. The tactic of terror attacks on the Shia and Kurds has not endeared the insurgency to the rest of Iraq. The insurgents, in fact, are the only people we know for sure that most Iraqis do not want to run the government. Of course, Iraq was governed by a minority before the invasion, so unpopularity would not exclude such a government arising again. "National unity" would have nothing to do with it, however.

In any case, next we see where Odom's policy is flawed in a way that Pétain's was not:

4) On terrorists. Iraq is already a training ground for terrorists. In fact, the CIA has pointed out to the administration and congress that Iraq is spawning so many terrorists that they are returning home to many other countries to further practice their skills there. The quicker a new dictator wins the political power in Iraq and imposes order, the sooner the country will stop producing well-experienced terrorists.

And why should the new dictator stop producing terrorists? I suppose it is possible that Odom thinks that the Baathist Party might return to power. It's hard to see why: the Baathists were blown of of power pretty decisively, and they seem to have less and less to do with the violent opposition to the new government.

Mark Steyn remarked about jihadi suicide tactics that the Islamists like them for the same reason the British in the 19th century liked the Gattling gun: it brings them victory. An American withdrawal from Iraq at this point would, correctly, be seen as a victory for that tactic: when you talk about the insurgency in Iraq these days, that's mostly what you mean.

If Odom's insurgents ran the country, there would be an Islamist state that believes it could discount retaliation from abroad incurred by any mischief it works in the world. What's the worst that can happen: an invasion? The withdrawal would not solve the problem.

* * *

Odom's analysis is much more than the Democratic Party in the US needs. It's not just that it is divorced from the course of Iraqi politics; it's that the party is not actually trying to lose the war. In point of fact, the notion of beginning a withdrawal in 2006 is close to being a consensus. What the Democrats are trying to ensure is that the outcome of the war, any outcome, is seen as a failure of the policies of the Bush Administration.

The withdrawal must be perceived to be a change in course, made under pressure from the Democrats in Congress. After that, if the new government collapses and Osama bin Ladin is is acclaimed the new caliph at Baghdad, that would provide a campaign issue for many years to come. On the other hand, if the new government is a success, then the Democrats can claim credit for having forced the withdrawal that allowed the Iraqi political factions to find a way to accommodate each other.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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