A Reckoning Deferred


How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? That haunting question, posed by John Kerry to Congress when he was a discharged Navy lieutenant in 1971, helped to slow, and eventually stop, a pointless, unpopular war in Vietnam. That question, in part because Kerry declined to pose it anew when he was a presidential candidate in 2004, has yet to slow the unpopular war in Iraq, if anything a more massive US strategic blunder than the Southeast Asian venture. But the question unmistakably haunts the senators who shuffle before the cameras to defend or denounce the planned “surge” of 21,500 additional American soldiers into Iraq as part of the White House’s latest ploy to postpone defeat. The only politician who can dodge the burdensome query is President George W. Bush himself, who effectively announced again on January 10 that his successor will be the one scrambling to answer — and to ameliorate the anarchy the United States will probably leave behind in Iraq.

 

At first glance, and at second, the domestic politics of the Iraq war are a paradox. On the one hand, the mere fact of Bush’s televised recital of yet another “new way forward,” like the Iraq Study Group report now resting in the Oval Office’s circular file, shows that the war will never again enjoy public support. A scant 36 percent of respondents to a Washington Post poll approve of Bush’s escalation, and only 40 percent continue to believe the war is worth fighting at all. The Democrats, too, scuttled to rearrange the priorities for their first “100 hours” in control of Congress when they realized their constituents demand rapid attention to Iraq policy above all else.

 

Yet Bush rolled out the “surge” proposal anyway. Perhaps more perplexingly, most prominent Democrats are still hiding behind the moribund Iraq Study Group’s recommendations and even pleas of Congressional impotence in order to avoid acting on the public’s clear desire to de-escalate the war without delay. In the Senate, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts stands nearly alone in asserting that troop level increases require Congressional approval. Few senators in either party savor the “surge” — conservative Christian standard-bearer Sam Brownback of Kansas spoke against it from Baghdad — but most Democrats appear content to pass a non-binding disavowal of the president’s plan. In the House of Representatives, whose members must keep their ears closer to the ground, Democrats are talking about attaching myriad strings to the funding for the troop increase, perhaps as a prelude to bolder stands. Still, only a vocal minority in Congress has wholeheartedly embraced their newfound power of the purse, for fear of being called miserly when baby-faced Marines in Baquba need body armor or, worse, being held accountable for the heightened violence that could very well afflict Iraq and its environs when the US departs at last. In their anxiousness to hang the Iraq albatross exclusively around Bush’s neck, the Democrats resemble the president, whose determination not to withdraw before leaving office quite possibly presages the occasional swipe at the next commander-in-chief for failing to persevere until “victory.” Partisan rivalry is trumping the bipartisan duty to end a disastrous war.

 

This pre-positioning for the “who lost Iraq?” debate, miserably, is only the surface of the sordid spectacle that is the Iraq war and its attendant discourse.

 

The “surge” itself is without merit. Establishment critics, like the National Security Network headed by former National Security Council man and Kerry campaign adviser Rand Beers, chalk the dots on the blackboard but do not connect them. They note that Bush has ordered extra troop deployments on four previous occasions, most recently in an effort to “secure” Baghdad in the summer of 2006, and that on each occasion the escalation has been followed by mayhem more sanguinary than before. They retrieve from the memory hole the facts that, in December, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously advised against sending more soldiers, while Gen. John Abizaid, until recently commander of the Iraq war theater, was testifying in Congress that none of his generals believed adding troops would “add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq.” One can consult another Beltway bible, the Iraq Index maintained by the Brookings Institution, for two additional data points: The number of attacks on US soldiers rose from 24,496 in 2004 to 34,131 in 2005, while estimates of the number of guerrillas fighting the US in Iraq jumped from some 5,000 in 2004 to 20,000 by the succeeding year. This latter estimate has not been revised downward. A logical conclusion, obvious to Iraqis who are polled on the matter, but still largely unmentionable in Washington, is that the mostly Sunni Arab rebellion against US occupation simply grows stronger the longer the occupation lasts.

 

Of course, the battles in the “Sunni triangle” are only one component of the Iraqi maelstrom. For two and a half years, Baghdad and its surrounding provinces have been consumed by a steadily intensifying civil war pitting the Sunni Arab militants against the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and, the White House is now compelled to admit, sizable elements of the US-trained Iraqi army and police forces. Nominally loyal to the Iraqi government formed after the December 2005 elections, these forces are thoroughly penetrated by communal militias, including the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the peshmerga fighters of the twin Kurdish parties. In the understated phrasing of the Iraq Study Group, it is unclear “whether [these forces] will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda.” The International Crisis Group is more forthright: “The [Iraqi] government and security forces should not be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered. They are but one among many parties to the conflict and not innocent of responsibility for much of the trouble.” Some security service units are participating in the sectarian cleansing that is forcing Sunni Baghdadis to the west of the Tigris River that bisects the capital, while Shiite Baghdadis flee to the eastern bank. None of them, as the Iraq Study Group pointed out, can curb the criminal gangs who frequently wear police uniforms. Civilians, of course, are the vast majority of the civil war’s victims.

 

Washington‘s preferred narrative of the Iraqi civil war, composed by neo-conservative columnists the moment they could no longer deny the internecine conflict, and purveyed by Bush on January 10, is that “al-Qaeda terrorists and Sunni insurgents recognized the mortal danger that Iraq‘s elections posed for their cause. And they responded with outrageous acts of murder in a calculated effort to provoke Iraq‘s Shia population to retaliate. Their strategy worked.” This story, while tailor-made for Bush’s dogged attempts to cast Iraq as “a struggle that will determine the direction of the global war on terror,” starts somewhere in the middle of the historical record. While terror attacks directed at Shiites began in the summer of 2003, the extremist salafis were not successful in inciting wider sectarian strife until after a series of decisions by the US and its Iraqi proxies had convinced the mass of Sunni Arabs that, in post-Saddam Iraq, they were the enemy. There is no room in Bush’s narrative for such events as US colonial overlord L. Paul Bremer’s dissolution of the Iraqi army, or the blanket debaathification pursued by SCIRI and Ahmad Chalabi, or the torture and sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib, or the razing of mostly Sunni Arab Falluja in November 2004 after the US had twice balked at similarly “back-breaking” assaults upon the Shiite Mahdi Army.

 

Nor is there time for the White House to acknowledge that Iraq’s final descent into the inferno, after the bombing of a Shiite imam’s tomb in Samarra’, came after the discovery of secret jailhouses wherein the new Iraqi Ministry of Interior, then controlled by SCIRI, tortured Sunnis, and the passage of a new constitution that polarized Iraqis almost precisely along sectarian and ethnic lines. Indeed, the logic of the Iraqi civil war is embedded in the logic of the entire post-Saddam political transition, by which efforts at national reconciliation have continually been sidelined by communal parties playing a zero-sum game. It is a logic of which the world saw a vivid and grotesque illustration on December 30, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government chose the date when Sunnis (but not Shiites) begin celebrating the Feast of the Sacrifice to hang Saddam Hussein before a crowd of jeering loyalists of Muqtada al-Sadr. By Muslim tradition and the Iraqi constitution, there are to be no executions on this holiday. Maliki’s order to go ahead, therefore, was akin to saying that Sunnis are not real Muslims. One of the worst war criminals of the late twentieth century was thereby transformed into a symbolic victim of the very sectarianism he so ruthlessly practiced while Iraq‘s dictator. Given all this history, why does Bush believe the US can now succeed at brokering the national reconciliation that is to be the political backdrop to the “surge”?

 

The president asked himself this question in his January 10 speech. His main answer was that, in the past, “political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence.” In other words, Bush believes Maliki will now give “a green light” to US incursions into Sadr City, the base of the Mahdi Army. If Maliki does so, despite his government’s reliance on the Sadrist ranks for its semblance of legitimacy, then the US will be fighting on two fronts, as it briefly was in the spring of 2004. Bush’s national reconciliation strategy thus relies upon a still greater exercise of military force. No wonder he warns Americans to expect more blood and gore “even if our new strategy works exactly as planned.”

 

Certainly, the economic initiatives attached to the “surge” hold out meager hope for brightening this picture. Bush vowed, for instance, that Maliki’s government will spend $10 billion of its own oil money on reconstruction projects, thus presenting itself as service provider and employer to Iraqis from whom it has previously been distant at best. Leave aside for a moment that this amount is less than two months’ US expenditure on its military presence and its super-embassy on the Tigris. A new book by British scholars Eric Herring and Glen Rangwala, Iraq in Fragments, suggests that the time for such “hearts and minds” projects is long since past. With the collapse of the Iraqi state following the invasion, and the wildly oscillating governing strategies of the US-British occupation authority, the country was effectively fragmented (into many more parts than the three envisioned by champions of “soft partition” like Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware). By the time of the “handover” of nominal sovereignty in 2004, many localities had ceased depending on Baghdad for essential services. About electricity, for example, Herring and Rangwala note that notoriously low supply in the capital was partly caused by the sabotage of residents (not insurgents) of the southern provinces where the US located its big new power plants. “Stop sending our electricity to Baghdad!” read a note left near one set of cut power lines.

 

The chatter of pundits indicating that Washington and its Iraqi allies will decide what happens next in Iraq, sustaining as it does the illusion of actual governance emanating from the walled-in Green Zone, was only the second most offensive utterance of the evening. Shame of place belongs to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), whose official “Democratic response” to Bush revolved around the demand that “the Iraqis stand and defend their own nation.” Durbin’s call begged the question of which Iraqis he means, since in the next sentence he referred to a civil war and government death squads. But the real insult was delivered though his petulant tone, the clear implication of which was that Iraqis are ungrateful for a regime-changing war that, three and a half years after the invasion, has left hundreds of thousands of them dead and turned an additional 3.7 million into refugees or internally displaced people. “We have given the Iraqis so much,” Durbin actually said. “Every time they call 911, we are not going to send 20,000 more American soldiers.”

 

So the Democrats, too, figure they can only sound patriotic if they erase the agency of the US in bringing Iraq to its present impasse. Their blame-the-Iraqis conceit is all the more cynical since they are pointedly not doing everything in their power to extricate American soldiers from their Mesopotamian entanglement. Instead, they are issuing meaningless calls for “phased redeployment” of those soldiers in 4-6 months, safe in the knowledge that Bush will not oblige so long as the legislators also promise to “provide our soldiers every resource they need to fight effectively.” The Democrats know, as Bush argued, that “failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States,” or at least for its long-time, bipartisan “forward-leaning posture” in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and they are not eager to hasten the reckoning either. There is no escaping the realities that US withdrawal from Iraq would be a retreat under fire; it would further tarnish the Pentagon’s desired image of invincibility; it would be seen as a triumph for radical Islamist insurgency; it would “embolden” Iran and Syria in their defiance of US dictates, and possibly inflate Iranian ambitions in the Gulf; it would sacrifice billions of dollars in sunken costs and abandon four handy “enduring bases.” The US would pay all these strategic costs without having installed a predictable, pliable partner regime atop what are likely the world’s second-largest petroleum reserves. Iraq, indeed, is not Afghanistan.

 

Loath to be the man who “lost Iraq,” but more to the point, dedicated to the worldview that Iraq is America’s to win or lose, Bush had little choice but to up the ante. He had to fortify the linkage between Iraq and “the decisive ideological struggle of our time” in the broader Middle East. He had to herald a bipartisan commission that will expand the active-duty military “so that America has the armed forces we need for the twenty-first century.” He had to rattle his saber at ebullient Iran, ordering another aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and a raid upon the Iranian consulate in Erbil. He left out only a reference to “hunting down al-Qaeda” by helicopter in Somalia. His problem is that he has employed this near apocalyptic rhetoric for so many years that it now rings hollow, even in the post-September 11 United States.

 

There are signs, indeed, that a resurgent American public will break, or at least crack, the bipartisan dam of denial and avoidance of blame for the Iraq debacle. The initial reaction of Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), then the incoming Majority Leader, to the “surge” proposal was acquiescence in a “short-term” increase of troops. According to Hany Khalil of United for Peace and Justice, Reid’s office was “pelted with phone calls” by anti-war activists and angry Democrats who voted in November 2006 for a substantive “change of course.” A few days later, the senator rejected Bush’s plan unequivocally. Those who viewed Bush’s oratory on CNN heard chants of “Stop the war!” just underneath the voice of the White House correspondent as she delivered her initial post-speech report from outside the presidential residence. United for Peace and Justice is building a national mobilization in Washington for January 27, and a host of local demonstrations will take place in the preceding week. The peace movement calls, as do we, for an early and expeditious US withdrawal from Iraq, with eyes wide open about the possible consequences for Iraq, but eyes also open to the fact that these consequences — civil war, refugee flight, fragmentation — are already occurring, and no longer in slow motion.

 

Withdrawal does not absolve the United States of its responsibility to Iraq. In the short term, the US owes asylum to the thousands of Iraqis who have worked for the military, the embassy and American contractors, and it owes years of hefty contributions to the international body that the UN should constitute posthaste to care for Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere. Washington should also exert great diplomatic energy to restrain Iraq‘s neighbors from meddling in the Iraqi civil war, though it would be naïve to expect none. But, first and foremost, Congress must restrain the White House from all further escalations in the Persian Gulf, and the public must disabuse Congress of the comforting notion that if it blocks the “surge,” it can wash its hands of the war itself.

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