A Question of Competence

Leave aside the war’s preface of lies. Forget about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Pretend not to care about international law and organizations. Ignore the chutzpah of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the increase in terrorism around the world, and the awesome pigishness of Halliburton. Think not about the international reputation of the United States. Don’t wonder whether a rushed constitution may be a disaster. Cover your ears when President Bush argues more American servicemen and women must die in Iraq because many of their brothers and sisters already have. Banish even Cindy Sheehan and the nearly 2,000 other Gold Star mothers from your mind.

Think only, citizens and elected officials still unable to accept the antiwar movement’s call for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, about whether you trust this administration to competently conduct the war, to "complete the mission," in the president’s phrase. The same president who declared "mission accomplished" long ago. Because if you don’t believe it competent – and you ought not – then you can no longer permit it to wage war in your name. At that point, "troops out now" becomes your only possible position.

As you mull the question, let’s consider the record. The incompetence began even before the unprovoked invasion. Warned by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki that an assault and its aftermath would require several hundred thousand troops, Secretary Rumsfeld fired the messenger and ignored his advice. The secretary later famously defended the administration’s inability to provide combat forces with adequate vehicle and body armor with a quip: "You go to war with the Army you have."

Once the invasion was underway, someone decided that smart-bombing al-Jazeera’s studios in Baghdad – killing journalist Tariq Ayoub – was an effective exercise in public diplomacy. It was probably the same person who reckoned shelling the Palestine Hotel – way station for the international media and home to two journalists killed in the attack – good psy-ops.

Someone decided that protecting the Oil Ministry but leaving the rest of Baghdad and who knows how many Iraqi arms depots and military facilities unguarded was sound strategy. Someone decided that loosing the nearly half-million-strong Iraqi army on its freshly occupied homeland armed with AK-47s but not jobs was good policy.

Someone considered Israeli-style treatment of the occupied population the best way to provide for security. Someone believed pulverizing Fallujah the optimum means for maintaining and growing the "coalition of the willing." Someone won with the argument that re-creating Saddam’s desert gulag would be the best way to win hearts and minds.

Someone considered heroic tales about Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman the model for government-to-people communications. Someone thought that domestic support for the war might be maintained indefinitely were the Pentagon to rely heavily on reservists and National Guard forces. Someone surely anticipated that Army recruiters would be challenged two and a half years later to make quota.

Someone thought that cutting Veterans Administration funding for hundreds of thousands of returning combat veterans and nigh on 20,000 wounded GIs would help alleviate the historic budget deficit. Someone thought that hiding from Americans the arrival home of American war dead a great leap forward in civil-military relations.

I write "someone" not because the buck doesn’t stop with Bush and Cheney – of course it does – but because incompetence permeates the civilian chain of command, and the current culture of impunity prevents all but the meanest accountability. Eager to make war, the elected and appointed architects of Operation Iraqi Freedom are terrible practitioners. In most any other line of work, these bunglers would’ve long ago got the sack. But in contemporary Washington, George Tenet, Paul Wolfowitz, and Paul Bremer get the Medal of Freedom, and John Bolton wins a recess appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Congress is a long way from posing a political threat over the president’s incompetence in Iraq. Forfeiting its power to declare war, Congress has used the power of the purse, granting Bush virtually all he’s wanted for Iraq.

To criticize the administration’s incompetence is not to chime in with calls for perseverance, further sacrifice, or more troops. Like 140 million other Americans, I opposed the war before it started. Like tens of millions of other Americans, I believe the U.S. military is long overdue for departure. Staying the course is not an option because the course is charted by the functional equivalent of drunk drivers.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq already figures prominently in the annals of preventable human disasters. Pressing sooner rather than later for an immediate pullout will make us the authors of a chapter not one page longer than it must be. Join me in calling for the only sane "exit strategy": troops out now.