The idea that this is a Republican war, that we were lured into Iraq under false pretenses exclusively by George W. Bush and his neocon advisers, with no responsibility or input from the Democrats, is a partisan myth: we are in there, and are staying in there, to a large degree because the Democrats not only bought into it, but also because they continue to buy into it. Nothing illustrates this better than a recent (June 21) speech [.pdf] given by Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a leading light of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, before the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
“There is a credibility gap,” avers Biden,
“A credibility gap that exists between the rhetoric the American people are hearing and the reality of what is happening on the ground. That does not mean the gap cannot be closed. But absent closing that gap, the American people are not, in my view, going to be prepared to give the president the support and time he needs to get it right in Iraq.”
The purpose of Biden’s speech, as he subsequently makes clear, is to give the president’s incredible rhetoric a realistic gloss, to drag him back down to earth and make the policy credible and therefore acceptable to the American people.
This position of basic support for the war is dressed up as criticism: after all, he has to somehow maintain the illusion that the Democrats really are an opposition party. Biden cites Cheney’s by-now-infamous “last throes” remark and launches into a story about his most recent trip to Iraq, with special emphasis on all the safety precautions that were necessary: the Green Zone isn’t safe, the Red Zone (i.e., the rest of Iraq) is decidedly dangerous, and “the insurgency remains as bad as it was a year ago.” On his first trip to Iraq, he reminisces, it was possible to walk around, meet our newly conquered subjects, and relax in the shade of the palm trees while backslapping our local satraps. Today “when you arrive in Baghdad, you’re in a C-130,” complains Biden. “You do a corkscrew landing to make it more difficult for an enemy ground-to-air launched missile to take you down. When you land, you immediately have body armor placed upon you,” and visitors are encased in a security bubble of reinforced steel and round-the-clock guards until they lift off from Baghdad airport. Is this any way for an outlying province to treat a U.S. senator? Certainly not! There is, however, some small amount of progress, says Biden: some Sunnis have joined the political process, but most have not. Biden’s diagnosis:
“Our military is doing everything that is possible, and I would suggest more. But there’s not enough of them and they are not enough fully trained or capable Iraqi forces to take territory and maintain it from the insurgents. Our forces go out and clean out towns. But then they move to next hornet’s nest. They lack the resources to leave a strong residual force behind to prevent the insurgents from returning to and intimidating the fence-sitters, who are too afraid to take a chance on behalf of the government. I heard with every general and every flag officer with whom I spoke about the inability to mount a serious counterinsurgency effort.”
Translation: we need to put more troops in there. In referring to the lack of Iraqi troops trained to fight the insurgents, Biden mentions the remarks of General Eric Shinseki, who was fired forced to retire early because he dared suggest we would need “several hundred thousand” troops to patrol Iraq and keep it subdued. You’ll recall, however, that Shinseki was not referring to Iraqis but to Americans: he was saying that we needed to go in there with far more troops, and that we could expect a good long stay. Yet Biden blithely goes on to make the point that the administration is remiss in bringing Iraqi troops up to par, as if anyone ever expected them to be.
On the one hand, Biden says there is a political “stalemate” in Iraq: furthermore, the place seems to be on the brink of civil war. On the other hand, however, he takes the word of the Shi’ite ministers he met with who pledge their best efforts to integrate Sunnis into the new government and the constitutional process. What he doesn’t mention is that the American-written “provisional” constitution prohibits former Ba’ath party members from running for office or engaging in political activities which excludes the Sunni elite from the get-go.
No one demanded of post-Soviet Russia that all members of the Communist Party should be forbidden from entering politics in any way, shape, or form. Yet Iraq was subjected to a far more rigorous standard. That the result is a civil war ought to surprise no one.
Biden blames the “de-Ba’athification” program that decimated and essentially disbanded the old Iraqi army and civil service on former Viceroy Paul Bremer and neocon pin-up boy Ahmad Chalabi, and in the same breath he extols the elections as a triumph of “democracy” yet the victors in that election were and are the biggest supporters of the Great Purge, and they fully intend to accelerate it. Biden criticizes the lack of training of Iraqi recruits but fails to point out the inherent problems with putting an Iraqi face on the occupation, namely massive infiltration and general unreliability. Biden points worriedly to the growth and influence of Shi’ite paramilitary formations, such as the Badr Brigade, but what he doesn’t go into are the assassinations of Sunni clerics and other Sunni leaders, which are widely thought to be the work of these groups.
According to Biden, the reconstruction program in Iraq the rebuilding of the infrastructure, the schools, the governmental apparatus, etc. has been “a disaster.” The reason is not because millions have been thrown around with no auditing they were handing out cash by the barrelful but because we haven’t spent enough:
“Remember the $18.4 billion that Congress appropriated at the urgent request of the president of the United States in the fall of ’03 for which I helped floor-manage and took on the responsibility along with others to push hard because I believe there is a nexus between the reconstruction and the physical safety and possible success of our military in the region. Just $6 billion of that $18.4 billion has been spent.”
We need to spend more money, not less because it’s all part of the pacification program. And Biden wants credit for floor-managing that boondoggle of a war budget, which has countless American companies feeding at the public trough and that’s the “nexus” of American foreign policy and corporate welfare, brought to you by Joe Biden and the Democrats as well as Tom DeLay and the Republicans. Biden is upset, however, that the money is being spent on body armor for American contractors instead of on the liberal uplift projects that are supposed to turn this into the Feel-Good Invasion:
“Forty percent of that has been allocated to rebuilding Iraqi security forces because of our lack of truth in advertising in the budget and asking directly for that money for that purpose. Of the $3.5 billion or so actually spent on reconstruction, between 25 and 40 percent of the reconstruction dollars have gone to provide security for those jobs.”
The problem is that, when the people you are trying to uplift hate your guts and are trying to kill you, either you need security or you need to get out. Biden has ruled out the latter, yet complains about the former. His dishonesty is breathtaking. And one has to wonder, if, as Biden avers, the country is on the brink of civil war, why it is worth reconstructing that which is slated to be destroyed in a new conflagration.
I am frankly unmoved by the senator’s account of Baghdad’s sewage-flooded streets, the lack of electricity, of clean water, of job prospects, of practically everything that makes life comfortable and worth living, and that we take for granted. Americans do not have the colonial temperament, and the lack of air-conditioning during the summer months and the fuel shortages No war for no oil! leave me cold: must we worry about the comfort level of the Iraqis, when the mean streets of some of our own ghettos are just as filthy and dangerous? Job prospects in this country aren’t so good, either, and if I were a Democrat I’d be much more focused on that than on unemployment in Iraq.
Biden wails that the central government in Baghdad is weak, and has “very little capacity and very limited reach beyond the Green Zone.” He sounds the alarm that this is creating a vacuum that “neighbors like Iran and Syria, criminals, and other opportunists are filling,” all of which goes to show that the “cherry-picking” of facts is not exclusively a Republican prerogative: what Biden fails to mention is that the Iraqis elected a pro-Iranian slate of candidates proffered by the United Iraqi Alliance, headed up by the two biggest Iranian-funded-and -trained parties, SCIRI and Dawa. Both groups were succored by Tehran in the days of Ba’athist rule, and still retain ties with the ayatollahs. Their reaction to the election of a hardliner as president of Iran reflects the reality on the ground created by the war a reality predicted in this space on many an occasion. As the Tehran Times reports:
“Iraqi Shi’ite political and religious officials in the central shrine city of Najaf hoped Saturday Iranian president-elect Ahmadinejad would deepen ties with his country’s western neighbor. ‘The election in Iran was a reflection of the people’s will as happened here in Iraq when the masses took to the streets to choose their government,’ said Abu Sadeq al-Nasiri, an official with Dawa Tanzim Iraq, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance Shi’ite coalition that swept January’s parliamentary election. ‘We hope our strong relationship with the Islamic Republic would not be affected by the change in leadership and that it would help us stand on our feet again.'”
Syria, on the other hand, is not filling any breach: the regime in Damascus is currently so weak that it can barely retain control of its own territory, let alone think of moving into Iraq. So that is just a canard.
As for criminals and those “opportunists” he mentioned, Biden doesn’t get more specific than that, but I will: the Kurdish peshmerga are the biggest threat to the unity of the Iraqi state, and they have already taken a number of steps toward declaring de facto independence, including electing their own “president” recently. As for the criminal element, these same peshmerga are kidnapping Arabs, Turkmen, and other ethnic minorities in Kurdistan by the hundreds and putting them in prisons where torture is routinely practiced. The Kurds, who came to power in the elections by engaging in massive election fraud and intimidation, are the biggest criminal element in postwar Iraq, and they are being egged on by the Israelis, as Seymour Hersh reported. Big trouble is brewing on that front, but Biden seems clueless on this matter.
The core of Biden’s critique comes midway through this litany of complaints,
“The disconnect between the administration’s rhetoric and the reality there on the ground has opened not just a credibility gap but a credibility chasm. Standing right in the middle of that chasm are 139,000 American troops, some of them, some of them on their third tour. This disconnect, I believe, is fueling cynicism that is undermining the single most important weapon we need to give our troops to be able to do their job, and that is the unyielding support of the American people.”
The real disconnect, however, is taking place in Biden’s brain, which refuses to acknowledge what Karl Rove and the Republican strategists clearly realized from the start: that the American people would never have supported the war in the first place if they’d known the truth about Iraq’s lack of WMD and the non-threat posed by Saddam. Of course the geniuses in the Pentagon and the White House knew there was going to be resistance to the occupation, and that we’d be in Iraq for at least five years, 10 being more likely that’s why they never agreed to a specific timetable for withdrawal, and still won’t. They knew the costs, in lives and treasure, would be enormous that’s why they refused to even estimate it in advance, and lied about Iraq’s oil paying for the reconstruction. They wanted [.pdf] permanent bases from the beginning and that’s why they denied it and went ahead with the plan to build them anyway. Biden blathers on about “informed consent” yet the reality is that if the American people had been informed of the truth, they would never have given their consent for this war.
We are supposed to believe that it is “cynicism” to believe otherwise. If it were up to Biden, the president would have given a speech of Churchillian verve, in which he promised us nothing but blood, sweat, and tears, not a shower of rose petals. Yet there is scanty evidence that this would have worked. After all, we aren’t talking about a threat to world peace of Hitlerian proportions: Saddam was a tinpot dictator of a ramshackle third-world country who had been effectively defanged. Shorn of lies, the case for war with Iraq was scanty to nonexistent: we need to “democratize” the entire Middle East, Israel must be defended at all costs, and, of course, the Ledeen Doctrine, as explicated by Jonah Goldberg, must be applied:
“Every 10 years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business.”
Something tells me that wouldn’t have gone over quite as well as blaming 9/11 on Saddam. So what if the administration’s rationale was exposed as a lie in the months and years following our declaration of “victory”? We’re in there: mission accomplished. Today, after all we’ve learned, Biden is telling us the lies don’t matter, and that the war was and is worth it:
“I believe we have a shot, a serious shot, we have still a chance to succeed in Iraq. And I also believe that the future, if it results in failure, will be a disaster. I want to see the president of the United States succeed in Iraq. It is necessary for the president to succeed in Iraq. His success is America’s success. And his failure is America’s failure. So any good thinking American would want to see him succeed in Iraq.”
The president’s goal is a military victory over the insurgents, not a negotiated settlement, and in this he has Biden’s complete support. Unlike a few of his fellow Democrats, Biden doesn’t mention a timetable for withdrawal, except for indirectly criticizing a Republican “drumbeat” I guess he means Reps. Walter B. Jones and Ron Paul, who have co-sponsored (along with a handful of Democrats) the Homeward Bound resolution [.pdf file], which would begin withdrawing troops by October of next year.
Americans are very big on “success” even the “success” of a disastrous, immoral foreign policy, which is supposed to be a good thing, if only it can be repackaged. This war must be good since America started it. Even if it involved killing some 100,000 Iraqis and made us less safe and more hated worldwide. A few more “successes” like that, and we’re finished.
The reality is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a major mistake the biggest foreign policy blunder since the conquest of the Philippines in 1898 and errors always entail consequences. Blowback is inevitable. The question is how to minimize it. By stubbornly “staying the course,” we exacerbate the conditions created by our original misguided actions and make a bad situation worse. What is required is not a perpetuation of the same old imperialist policy but a complete turnabout. What’s done is done, but we mustn’t do any more we’ve done enough damage to the delicate social and political fabric of a nation that has been mercilessly bombed and starved for over a decade.
If we announced a timetable for withdrawal, the insurgents, we are told, would simply wait us out and lie low until the U.S. departed, then come out of the woodwork, guns blazing: al-Qaeda would promptly take over in Baghdad. This scenario, however, is oddly one-dimensional. The problem is not the insurgency, per se, but the Iraqi government’s complete inability to respond to it in any effective way.
The lack of a timetable gives the majority Shi’ite government no incentive to get its act together. The Iraqis are now free to fight among themselves, to take intransigent positions, and even to take the nation to the edge of civil war, confident in the knowledge that the Americans are stuck to the Middle East tar baby beyond any hope of extrication. They can act out in the worst possible way, huddled under the protective shield of the American military, without the need to compromise or appeal to anyone beyond their own religious-ethnic constituencies. A timetable would concentrate their attention and force them to compromise and grant the relatively secular Sunni minority some concessions, balancing out the religious bias of the new regime.
Ok, so what is “success” in Bidenesque terms? Here, in his own words, is the senator’s definition:
“Success, as I define it, is leaving Iraq better than we found it, not a Jeffersonian democracy, which I for one have never believed as a remote possibility, but a unified country with a representative government where all the major factions think they have a stake in the deal, a stake in the government, with the territorial integrity intact, and not a threat to its neighbors nor a haven for terrorists. That is success from my perspective.”
Iraq was a unified country before the West targeted it for destruction: it was territorially intact, not a haven for terrorists, and not any more of a threat to its neighbors than, say, Iran. Certainly the Kurds of Iraq had as much of a stake in Saddam’s regime as their brothers across the border in Turkey have in the government in Ankara i.e., practically none. It’s a rough neighborhood, after all. What has occurred as a result of the war, however, is that all of these factors have been sacrificed in order for Iraq to attain the status of a “representative democracy.” There is as yet zero evidence that this status can be maintained without a massive U.S. troop presence.
Leave Iraq “better than we found it”? After so much death and destruction, the Iraqis would have to build a heaven on earth to make the war worth the very high costs and, even then, what about the costs incurred by us?
Having defined a “success” that sounds suspiciously like prewar Iraq, Biden goes on to delineate the disaster that would befall us if we so much as budged from our duty to create an American protectorate in Iraq:
“Let me define what I call disaster: a country that left to its own devices disintegrates and becomes a playground for Iraq’s neighbors and a training ground for terrorists. That is a real possibility. If it becomes a reality, it would embolden our enemies, encourage terrorism, undermine moderates in the region, badly damage our credibility that we’re going to need to lead other countries against new threats. It would also send oil prices even higher. In short, it would hurt our national security interests for at least a decade to come.”
This is precisely our present situation. Iraq is disintegrating, because it was never a real country to begin with, only lines on a map drawn by the British. It is a training ground for terrorists, as the CIA has recently pointed out: this is not just a possibility; it is happening right now. Our enemies are emboldened: Osama bin Laden and his allies are recruiting hand-over-fist because Muslims are waking up the reality of the Bush administration’s Middle Eastern project, which Biden fully supports, of regional “democratization,” i.e., serial regime-change. That’s why Biden is worried that our credibility will be so damaged that we won’t be able to “lead other countries against new threats”: Iran, Syria, and anyone else in the Muslim-Arab world who fails to get with the program. Iraq was just the first stop on the Middle East escalator: next floor, Damascus. Third floor, Tehran
Our national security interests have been hurt, but not by the opponents of this futile, illegal war. Oil prices are already high, and it wasn’t the antiwar movement that drove them there. The great danger of this war is that it could easily spread, spilling over into Syria, Iran, or even Saudi Arabia. The longer American troops stay, the more likely a regional war will break out and drive oil prices to levels that would cripple the U.S. economy.
In business, an investment gone bad simply has to be written off as a loss: stupidly continuing the same erroneous investment strategy would eventually result in bankruptcy. Governments, however, can choose to escalate their errors, and pursue a wrong-headed policy right to the bitter end: the price they pay is in other people’s money and the blood of other people’s sons and daughters. Most of our governing class is seemingly allergic to military service, but they were meant for better things. Iraq gives them a new canvas on which to display their creativity. Neoconservative intellectuals can try out their social and political theories, and our laptop bombardiers can compose odes to the glory of militarism without going anywhere near the military.
Biden is merely giving the neoconservative project a pragmatic tweak here and there. His basic criticism is that the Bush administration is trying to build an empire on the cheap: his answer is more money, more adventures in “nation-building,” and more troops. It’s not clear if he means more American troops, or more from our rapidly-defecting allies. He says there “are no more” American troops to spare, but this is clearly untrue: we could withdraw all troops from, say, South Korea, where they are only in harm‘s way and pull them out of Europe, too, where they are merely a form of economic aid to privileged localities. Another ploy would be to up the economic benefits of joining the military and empty America’s poor neighborhoods with an offer hardly anyone in such an environment could afford to refuse.
In short, we could very well increase our investment both human and material in the subjugation and “democratization” of Iraq. The American people, however, don’t think it’s worth it. Sixty percent want to start withdrawing troops, rather than adding them, and Senator Biden is practically beside himself. Oh, dearie me, what will we ever do? Biden is right to be upset, at least from his perspective: the American people are finally waking up to the schemes of militant do-gooders and raving “humanitarians,” who, together, have done more harm to humankind than Satan and all his disciples. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Biden’s liberal hawkishness is the expressway to perdition.
What Biden proposes is a “new compact” between Congress and the administration, whereby the latter agrees to be grilled and hectored by the Democrats on a monthly basis. The administration will be called on the carpet to explain their “strategy for success,” as Rep. Nancy Pelosi put it in her proposal to amend the military budget. The Democrats and a few dissident Republicans will be allowed to let off steam, a few partisan brownie points will be scored, and the Democrats will be given the opportunity to talk the talk even if they refuse to walk the walk. All hot air and no action: just a bunch of politicians listening to themselves talk. Meanwhile, the killing goes on and the tragedy is unabated, while we pursue a mindless policy of “victory” until financial or military exhaustion whichever comes first.
The Democratic leadership doesn’t oppose the Iraq war: they voted for it, after all. What they want is a hand in running it and in handing out the goodies to their corporate and political allies. They’ve been left out of the action, up until this point: as part of the price of their continued support, Biden is demanding the Democrats get their fair cut. If Bush had been half as smart as Bill Clinton, he would have appointed a Democrat to take Paul Bremer’s place.
Biden and Pelosi are frantically trying to defuse rising antiwar sentiment in the Democratic party, just as the Kerry people quashed any expression of antiwar views at that militaristic bash in Boston they called their nominating convention. Saddled with their crackpot loudmouth of a party chairman, who acts more and more like a Republican plant, the anti-interventionist Democratic majority is leaderless but riled up. The Biden-Pelosi-left- neocon wing is frantically trying to divert all that energy in a safe direction, away from calling for an end to the occupation. It’s hard to do that, however, without looking like Bush’s accomplices. They think they can get away with it with this “report to the Congress” scheme, but their ruse is pretty transparent and will become even more so as the war intensifies.
It isn’t the insurgency that’s in its last throes, but the imperial ambitions of our arrogant rulers, who believe their own self-regarding propaganda. The idea that the American people would give their “informed consent” to an American Empire in the Middle East is absurd. It will never happen, until and unless the people become as corrupted as their rulers and finally lose touch with their republican heritage for good.
The more informed the American people are about our various interventions around the world, the more their inherent antipathy to such meddling is excited. Joe Biden finds this scary: I find it heartening.