In an excellent piece in the UK’s premier conservative magazine, the Spectator, Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair columnist who covered the invasion from Centcom headquarters, sums up the present moment in Iraq quite well:
“All in all, after more than two years of combat and any number of cycles of triumphalism followed by dismal comeuppance, you’d have to be a cockeyed nitwit not to realize that the Iraq war might not end happily. People are now talking of a new Tet moment. During the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Vietcong, who were said to be demoralized and on the run, were suddenly storming the doors of the American embassy (and on television). In Iraq the insurgents, with their supposedly poor leadership and declining support, are suddenly upping their kill rate, with attacks of terrible ferocity and obvious strategic smarts.”
More Vietnam deja vu: the U.S. public is moving rapidly toward its own Tet moment, regardless of whether the insurgents pull off a major offensive on the ground in Iraq. Polls show 60 percent want us to start withdrawing troops, and, even more significantly and ominously for the Party of Bush the majority now believe the administration deliberately misled the American people in order to goad us into supporting the invasion of Iraq. People don’t like being lied to, and they don’t like liars: if the GOP is going to avoid being punished at the polls, they’re going to have to come up with some kind of viable exit plan before the situation goes into total meltdown.
In the wake of Bush’s “stay the course” speech, however, things look grim all ’round: the president isn’t budging he isn’t even acknowledging the dire straits he’s in. Congressional Republicans, however, have no choice but to face reality, at least in this particular instance: after all, another election is coming up, and they sense their vulnerability. Which is perhaps why Republicans are beginning to speak out against the war. A bipartisan “Homeward Bound” resolution [.pdf file] co-sponsored by conservative Rep. Walter “French Fries” Jones and libertarian Republican Ron Paul, as well as two liberal Democrats, targets Oct. 1, 2006, as the day we begin to bring the troops home.
Significantly, the president was forced to take on this proposal in his recent speech, denouncing it as “an artificial timetable” one wonders what would be a natural timetable and averring that it
“Would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done. It would send the wrong signal to our troops, who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out. We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed and not a day longer.”
Who or what decides when our presence is no longer required: what, in short, does “victory” look like? The president gave us no answer to that question, but instead demanded that we give him a blank check to pursue his policy to the last National Guardsman. Trust me, he’s telling us: I know what’s best for the nation. But how many Americans who have come to believe they were lied into war are now willing to trust the liar-in-chief? Even those elite Special Forces soldiers who constituted his live audience at Fort Bragg sat there in stony silence as he explicated why we must continue to pursue an increasingly costly and murky mission.
It isn’t just Walter Jones and Ron Paul, along with various and sundry congressional Democrats, who are giving the president a hard time. He’s facing a double-pronged political assault, including one emanating from Iraq. Ayham al-Samarie, former minister of electricity in Iraq’s provisional government, and the broker of recent talks between the occupation forces and the insurgents, has announced that he is forming a political party, the National Council for Unity and Construction of Iraq, to give voice to the demands of what he calls the “resistance.” Samarie, a dual Iraqi-American citizen, claims to speak for those insurgent groups that have not been targeting civilians, and the central plank in the platform of the new party is a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
Samarie, who was once received by President Bush at the White House, is the ideal candidate for leader of the growing movement inside Iraq to get the Americans out: now if only he can wangle himself another White House audience. He is no Islamist: far from being a terrorist or one of Saddam’s former lieutenants, he supported the “liberation” enough to be appointed to the provisional government, and now wants to involve the recalcitrant Sunnis in the political process a goal supposedly shared by the Americans, who continually point to their efforts to be “inclusive” as evidence of their good intentions.
You’ll notice, however, that, even as the president outlined the two tracks we’re pursuing to achieve “success” in Iraq, the military and the political, there was little explicit detail on the latter. We got lots of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo about “embedding” and hopeful nonsense about the allegedly increasing proficiency of the Iraqi security forces, but only vague allusions were made to the political side of the equation. Samarie’s new initiative, however, is a golden opportunity for the administration to get out of its current bind, if only they had the courage to take him up on it.
It’s interesting that an Islamist Web site associated with the jihadist element of the insurgency has already threatened Samarie’s life. He was immediately denounced as a “terrorist” by Saad Jawad Qandil, a prominent Shi’ite politician and National Assembly member. The neocons in the administration, too, are no doubt quite unhappy with this development: perhaps they remember what happened in El Salvador when the political wing of the leftist insurgents got its act together and launched a diplomatic offensive. Even as the FMLN guerrillas were successfully defying the “democratic” government of Jose Napoleon Duarte much as the Iraqi insurgents are defying the elected government in Baghdad the guerrillas’ political wing was outflanking them in the capitals of Europe. According to Max Boot, “democracy” is supposed to defeat Iraq’s insurgents in the end, but the reality is that we have merely handed them another weapon and Samarie is wielding it, to what effect remains to be seen.
The Americans are stalemated in Iraq, and they now face a choice: negotiations or endless conflict. The administration may wake up tomorrow to the fact that there will be no military solution to the problem of the insurgency, or it may take a year or so: in the end, however, the American people are going to rebel against the rising carnage and the lack of a clear objective, no matter how many times Bush (or his successor) conjures the specter of 9/11. The president’s recent peroration was a rather ineffective attempt to hold back that tide, but the increasingly visible face of the Iraqi insurgents not that of Zarqawi, or Osama bin Laden, but the nationalist Samarie is undermining his contention that we’re fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq.
There is a concrete example of a nation that was plagued by a horrifically violent and seemingly intractable insurgency, led by ideologues whose commitment to democracy was dubious if not entirely nonexistent, yet today that country lives in relative peace: El Salvador, where the two sides eventually negotiated a settlement. That war, too, was started and loudly supported by many of the same belligerent neocons who have landed us in the Iraqi quagmire, and they will fight any effort to bring about a similar cessation of hostilities just as fiercely as they did back then. However, as I pointed out at the beginning of this year, the El Salvador option is viable for Iraq and now is the moment when it needs to be aggressively advanced as a realistic policy option.
Negotiations and a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops not sending in more troops, as Senators Biden and Kerry have proposed is the only rational alternative to the Bush policy of endless escalation. It’s a disgrace that the Biden–Kerry–Pelosi axis of complicity is now trying to outflank the president by trying to appear “tougher” on the insurgency and more “success”-oriented than the White House. It’s just about what one would expect, however, and I can’t say I’m surprised.
The seminal moment in El Salvador occurred when U.S.-funded-and-trained elite troops murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero and gunned down Jesuit priests suspected of “subversion.” The U.S. government pulled its funding, and the Salvadoran government was forced into negotiations. It isn’t hard to imagine a similarly catalytic atrocity triggering roughly the same series of events in Iraq although popular outrage on the home front against the war may not even require such a dramatic provocation. The mounting casualty rate is enough.
The main problem with the El Salvador option has been the absence of anyone to negotiate with. Samarie has solved that one for us. The only remaining obstacles are the leaders of both political parties in the U.S., who are at least for the moment presenting a united front against withdrawal. The task of the antiwar movement, aside from calling for a complete and rapid withdrawal, is now to promote and popularize this new opening for peace. Let us take up the cry, and let it be heard in the halls of Congress as well as at antiwar events and on the highways and byways of the Internet: Negotiations now!