After every Republican presidential debate, viewers must ask: are the candidates crazy? Not Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who has proposed dropping a nuke on Mecca or Medina, but the others, who have tied themselves to the Bush administration’s disastrous Iraq policy.
Only Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has forthrightly criticized the administration. In the latest presidential encounter, Sen. John McCain set the tone on Iraq, asserting that “the surge is working. The surge is working, sir. It is working.” McCain was responding to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who only said that “the surge is apparently working” and talked about reducing the number of U.S. troops and pulling them back to a support role.
In fact, even Romney’s equivocation, let alone McCain’s certitude, isn’t warranted by the evidence. The best that can be said is that violence is down in some Baghdad neighborhoods and Anbar province to the west. But violence is up elsewhere in the country, and depending on the figures offered, the number of civilian attacks is unchanged or only slightly reduced.
Moreover, contrary to administration assertions, civilian killings appear to be up. Reports Reuters: “Civilian deaths from violence in Iraq rose in August, with 1,773 people killed, government data showed on Saturday [Sept. 1], just days before the U.S. Congress gets a slew of reports on President George W. Bush’s war strategy. The civilian death toll was up 7 percent from 1,653 people killed in July, according to figures from various ministries.” The administration and Iraqi government often offer conflicting numbers, leading to even more confusion. In releasing his agency’s new report, Comptroller General David Walker explained: “Let’s just say there are several different sources within the administration on violence, and those sources do not agree.”
Unfortunately, the administration appears ever ready to manipulate the numbers for political gain. One intelligence official told the Washington Post, “If a bullet went through the back of the head, it’s sectarian. If it went through the front, it’s criminal.” No wonder Walker told Congress that “We could not get comfortable with [the military’s] methodology for determining what’s sectarian versus nonsectarian violence.”
Nor do anecdotal claims provide much reassurance. U.S. politicians, well-guarded by soldiers, snipers, and helicopters, have proclaimed Baghdad’s Dora market to be an example of surge success. But Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, assigned to guard the market, told a reporter, “Personally, I think it’s a false representation. But what can I say? I’m just doing my job and don’t ask questions.”
Moreover, where violence has indisputably fallen, it often has done so because continuing sectarian cleansing has eliminated more mixed neighborhoods. Indeed, the number of people fleeing their homes has increased. According to Damien Cave and Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, “in some cases the good news is a consequence of bad news: people in neighborhoods have been ‘takhalasu’ an Iraqi word for purged, meaning killed or driven away. More than 35,000 Iraqis have left their homes in Baghdad since the American troop buildup began, aid groups reported.” Iraq’s capital grows ever more balkanized, the opposite objective once advanced by the administration. No wonder 70 percent of Iraqis say that the Bush escalation has failed. Worse, 60 percent of them say attacks on coalition forces are justified.
Even if there were more good news, it’s not clear it would matter. There’s no evidence of permanent improvement. Shi’ite politicians are not interested in sharing power with Sunnis. The Maliki government is weak and ineffective. Iraqi security forces are corrupt and unreliable. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office figures that the Iraqis have fully met just three of 18 benchmarks. A commission headed by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones recommended disbanding the security police and starting over an admission of almost total failure.
Worse, where increased U.S. military action pushed insurgents into hiding, they are likely to reemerge when that action ceases. Observes Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group: “The military offensive has temporarily suppressed, or in many cases, dislocated, armed groups. Once the military surge peters out, which it will if there is no progress on the political front, these groups will pop right back up and start going at each other’s, and civilians’, throats again.” And whatever the administration might wish, maintaining increased troop levels in Iraq will be almost impossible, absent longer tours, a large-scale reserve call-up, or reinstitution of conscription.
The worst evidence of good news is Anbar province, which President George W. Bush visited in order to extol Iraqi federalism. Sunni tribes began shifting against al-Qaeda out of disgust for its brutality even before Washington added 4,000 troops there. But America’s new allies do not like Washington or Baghdad. Arming the Sunni tribes could end up strengthening breakaway forces against the Shia-dominated national government or, even worse, insurgent forces against Washington if we don’t soon bring home our troops.
Of course, even if things aren’t going well the Republican candidates don’t believe America can leave. To the contrary, the supposedly clinching argument is that since we’ve made such a mess, we’ve got to stick around. Warned McCain, “I want our troops home with honor, otherwise we will face catastrophe and genocide in the region.” He sounds like the man who murdered his parents and then requested mercy because he was an orphan.
The only candidate willing to contest this illogic is Ron Paul. When asked about leaving forces in Iraq to limit violence against Iraqis who supported Washington, Paul observed: “The people who say there will be a bloodbath are the ones who said it would be a cakewalk, it would be slam dunk, and that it would be paid for by oil. Why believe them? They’ve been wrong on everything they’ve said.”
Thus, he insisted, “I would leave. I would leave completely. Why leave the troops in the region? The fact that we had troops in Saudi Arabia was one of the three reasons given for the attack on 9/11. So why leave them in the region? They don’t want our troops on the Arabian Peninsula. We have no need for our national security to have troops on the Arabian Peninsula, and going into Iraq and Afghanistan and threatening Iran is the worst thing we can do for our national security.”
The bottom line? “I am less safe, the American people are less safe for this,” he said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee responded that “we bought it because we broke it” so “we can’t leave until we’ve left with honor.” But Paul retorted: “How many more [lives] do you want to lose? How long are we going to be there? How long what do we have to pay to save face?” After the debate Huckabee declared, “He really lit my fuse when he continued to assert that it was our fault we were attacked on Sept. 11.”
Of course, Paul said no such thing. But Huckabee was not alone in putting words in Paul’s mouth. In the previous debate, McCain again proved to be one of the war’s chief cheerleaders, saying “we must win.” In contrast, Paul bluntly stated: “We shouldn’t be there. We ought to just come home.” Romney then offered the demagogic non sequitur: “Has he forgotten about 9/11?”
Before that came the interchange with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Paul asked: “Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there; we’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We’ve been in the Middle East.” Giuliani dishonestly charged that Paul had blamed America, causing that latter to reply, “They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free. They come and they attack us because we’re over there.”
As Huckabee, Romney, and Giuliani certainly know, Paul does not blame the U.S. for 9/11, and Iraq has nothing to do with 9/11. However, the truth does not matter to them. Having lost the intellectual case for going to war, and now losing the intellectual case for continuing the occupation, they prefer demagoguery to analysis. Anyone criticizing the Iraq disaster is attacking the troops. Anyone criticizing the occupation is forgetting 9/11. Anyone advocating withdrawal is giving in to al-Qaeda.
Thankfully, the politics of fear no longer appears to work on the American people. A recent poll found that the majority of Americans believe the war was a mistake, the U.S. should bring home its troops, and the Bush administration cannot be trusted to tell the truth about events in Iraq. People now recognize as nonsensical shrieking what passes as thinking for so many war supporters.
In contrast to his competitors, Paul has been consistently right in diagnosing the problem of terrorism. First, it has long been evident that being “over there,” as Paul put it, generates opposition that can lead to terrorism. This is a statement of fact, not of blame. Had Washington not inserted troops in middle of the Lebanese civil war, for instance, there would have been no bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in 1983.
Had American officials not sought to buttress the Saudi monarchy with U.S. forces, there would have been no Americans living in the Khobar Towers to be killed in the 1996 bombing. One of the neoconservatives-in-chief, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, said of America’s presence in Saudi Arabia, “It’s been a huge recruiting device for al-Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina.”
Recognizing that terrorists have reasons for killing means neither that their actions are justified nor that Americans are “to blame” for terrorism. But the only way to make good policy is to recognize reality. The Huckabee-Romney-Giuliani strategy of sticking their heads in the sand to win political points guarantees more American casualties in the future.
The problem is particularly acute with Iraq. The invasion and occupation of Iraq have created more terrorists and more terrorism. Daniel Benjamin of the Brookings Institution told Congress earlier this year that “the invasion of Iraq gave the jihadists an unmistakable boost. Terrorism is about advancing a narrative and persuading a targeted audience to believe it.” U.S. policies “have too often lent inadvertent confirmation to the terrorists’ narrative.”
London’s Chatham House has concluded that Iraq “imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the al-Qaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.” In reviewing the July 2005 London bombings, Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee explained that “Iraq continues to act as a motivation and focus for terrorist activity in the UK.”
Many Islamic extremists make the same point. Of course, some conservatives who cite the words of jihadists to prove that “we are at war” simultaneously deny that the same words explain why they attack Americans. But many terrorists obviously believe that the Iraq war is another U.S. assault on Islam. Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah says simply, “The occupation of Iraq has increased acts of terrorism against the U.S.”
America’s occupation has spawned copycat killers in other nations, such as Britain, Indonesia, and Spain, as well as drawn foreign fighters to Iraq. According to researchers Reuven Paz of Israel and Nawaf Obeid of Saudi Arabia, most of these recruits were new to the jihadist movement, radicalized by the conflict.
Equally worrisome, the war has pushed perhaps 15,000 or more Iraqis into al-Qaeda. Explains Benjamin [.pdf]: “The chaos in Iraq has allowed for extensive training and development in various terrorist tactics and urban warfare, including increasingly proficient use of improvised explosive devices.” Graduates of Terrorism U will likely circulate the globe, multiplying their bloody work.
In contrast, Iraq was not related to 9/11 or al-Qaeda before the conflict. Even President George W. Bush, if not Vice President Richard Cheney, admits this fact. Moreover, the 9/11 commission found no operational relationship between Hussein and Osama bin Laden; future Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was present, but only in the Kurdish zone beyond Hussein’s control because of Washington’s “no fly” zone. After occupying Iraq for four years, U.S. forces have found no evidence that Hussein engaged in terrorism against America. Ironically, President Bush’s Iraq war, which prematurely diverted U.S. troops from Afghanistan, actually helped bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders survive.
Obviously, it isn’t easy to simply “come home” from Iraq as Ron Paul proposes. But that is the only strategy for real victory.
And not just a withdrawal from Iraq. As Paul said in the last debate, “We need a new foreign policy that said we ought to mind our own business, bring our troops home, defend this country, defend our borders.” So true. Why are we defending South Korea, which has 40 times the GDP of its northern antagonist? Why are we defending Japan, which has the second largest economy on earth? Why do we have troops in Europe, which faces no military threat? Why do we insist on sprinkling garrisons and detachments around the world in an attempt to micro-manage other peoples in other lands?
Yes, it’s time for a new foreign policy.
President George W. Bush has led the country over the abyss into a needless and needlessly botched war. But he never learns. When visiting Australia earlier this month he declared, “We’re kicking ass,” just as, more than four years before, he bellowed “Bring ’em on.”
However, now he is leading his party over an electoral abyss. Instead of running from him, several of the Republican candidates are being advised by the very neoconservatives who concocted the current Iraq policy. Yet the American people no longer fall for the deceptions and demagoguery of these faux warriors. A majority of Americans believe the war was a mistake, the troops should come home, and the Petraeus report is sugarcoating reality. The bell is tolling for the GOP warmonger caucus. Unless the leading Republican presidential contenders join Ron Paul soon in detaching themselves from the failed Bush policies, many more Americans are likely to conclude that the Republicans are crazy. And to vote accordingly.