When President George W. Bush was asked at his news conference last Wednesday whether we are winning in Iraq, he answered, "Absolutely; we’re winning." The disingenuousness was almost enough to provoke sympathy for the beleaguered president as he lived through another bad week with further diminished credibility.
A letter winner in cheerleading at Andover and Yale, the president knows how tough it is to keep spirits up when it becomes clear that his team is not winning, but the bedlam in Iraq has become the supreme test. Some of his fellow cheerleaders have quit cheering, and even the Fox News Channel is having trouble putting on a brave front.
And small wonder. For example, on Oct. 19 USA Today put the main challenge succinctly:
"The mistaken war and botched aftermath have created such a mess that the only credible course change must be predicated on this painful question: Is there an achievable goal that makes the further sacrifice of American lives worthwhile? With each passing day, that is looking less and less likely. What, exactly, is the goal that U.S. forces are fighting and dying for?"
Is it to referee a civil war in Iraq? At the press conference Bush said:
"Our job is to prevent the full full-scale civil war from happening in the first place. It is one of the missions, is to work with the Maliki government to make sure that there is a political way forward that says to the people of Iraq, It’s not worth it. Civil war is not worth the effort by them. And so we will work to prevent that from happening."
Is that it? Or is it, as the president let slip, to prevent "terrorists or extremists in Iraq [from gaining] access to vast oil reserves" in Iraq and denying them to the U.S.? How often were we told that oil had "nothing to do with it!"?
The president did say that too many children "won’t ever see their mom and dad again," and that he owes it "to them and to the families who still have loved ones in harm’s way to ensure that their sacrifices are not in vain."
He owes to people like the family of Jeremy Shank. In a small town in Missouri last month, Rev. Carter Frey eulogized young Shank, who was killed while on patrol in Iraq. Frey stressed that Shank was one of those who "put themselves in harm’s way and paid the ultimate sacrifice so that you and I can have freedom to live in this country."
Really? Many patrols like the one Shank was on appear to be aimed at stopping Shia and Sunni from killing each other stopping what the president calls "full-scale civil war." Two months ago, Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told the press, "It’s no longer about insurgency, but sectarian warfare." Is that what Jeremy Shank and other young men and women are paying the ultimate sacrifice or the penultimate one of living the rest of their lives without arms or legs?
What else could be their purpose? To continue the pursuit of evidence of weapons of mass destruction or ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda? Or is it really, as the Bush administration suggests, to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq and the wider Middle East? Really? How long will we let our young soldiers be mocked and used? How long will we allow President Bush to treat them as disposable soldiers like toys a rich kid gets for Christmas?
Time to Bring Them Home
There are basically two choices: (1) "stay the course" (or the same concept with a more felicitous label); or (2) withdraw. Let’s look at them both:
(1) Those of us who have "been there, done that" know what is meant by "stay the course" or whatever updated formulation the Bush administration uses that implies action short of withdrawal. Its name is Vietnam. It means more violence month by month as we have witnessed recently until there are 50,000 more of our young troops, and a million more Iraqis, dead. From the president’s own words, we know his intention is to keep our troops in Iraq until the end of his term. A year or two later, our helicopters will be lifting the remainder of the American presence in Iraq off the rooftops of the billion-dollar embassy we are now building in the Green Zone. The name is Vietnam. It is a no-brainer for anyone who knows the first thing about "insurgency" or, more properly, resistance to foreign occupation. More and more violence guaranteed.
(2) Withdrawal: It is more difficult to predict what will happen if we withdraw our troops from Iraq over the next year or so. A lot depends on how we go about it. The steps outlined below, the result of brainstorming with my colleagues with Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) and others, would in my view hold the promise of much less violence and killing:
Following these four steps would attenuate the violence and damage that can be expected, however well-planned our withdrawal. Most importantly, then and only then we can expect the Arab League countries, the United Nations, the Western Europeans, Indians, Pakistanis and others to do what they can to facilitate our withdrawal with as much grace as can be mustered at that point. Why? Because they like us? No; we have frittered away the strong support rendered us in the wake of 9/11. They will help because most of them have even more interest than we in a more stable Iraq and just as much interest as we in the oil there.
Bottom line: It seems virtually certain that there will be more violence in "staying the course." That being the case, it can no longer be a moral decision to say, in effect: Let’s let those kids from the inner cities and the farms stay the course for us; who knows, maybe they’ll be lucky!
I cannot resist the temptation to recall that all of this was entirely predictable and predicted. Almost exactly three years ago, we took strong issue with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s insistence that the war in Iraq was "winnable." We noted at the time that "most of those with a modicum of experience in guerrilla warfare and the Middle East are persuaded that the war is NOT winnable and that the only thing in doubt is the timing of the U.S. departure."
When will they ever learn; when will they ever learn?