Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Fantasy and reality after three years in Iraq

This past weekend marked the three-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. President Bush marked the occasion by avoiding the use of the word "war". He referred instead to "the beginning of the liberation of Iraq".

Writing in The Washington Post, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was sunny and optimistic. Iraq has come a long way in three years. It has gone from 'brutal dictatorship" to "a permanent government" with "a new constitution". Iraqi security forces are gaining in "size, capability, and responsibility". The terrorists are "losing". Given these successes, given the righteousness of the mission, "there is only one conclusion": "Now is the time for resolve," he argues, "not retreat." Indeed: "Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis".

Truly fantastic hyperbole. Clearly, they have not a clue.

It is tempting to believe such good news. If only. Once again -- and this has been the common thread that runs from the build-up to war to the present day -- the leading political architects of the war seem to be fixed in a common state of delusion, unable to make out any semblance of reality through the fog of fantasy. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld...

The Iraq War was initially waged on the basis of faulty and misused intelligence, on the politicization of intelligence, on a plan to fix the intelligence around a pre-conceived policy, on a wholesale fabrication within a post-9/11 culture of fear. It has been conducted with consistent incompetence. And it is now being wound down, almost imperceptibly, without due regard for what's actually happening on the ground, without much concern about what will happen to Iraq once American forces are pulled out.

And yet the battle rages. At Slate, Christopher Hitchens repeats once again why we were right to invade Iraq and Fred Kaplan points out just what when wrong. In the end -- or at least as it stands now -- I agree with Kaplan: "Had different decisions been made at any of these junctures, the war might have gone differently, Iraq might be a different place, and the third anniversary might be a less gloomy occasion."

The war may or may not be just in and of itself and it may or may not have been doomed to failure. Alas, we may never know: The Iraq War has become a quagmire. It is draining American resources, soaking up millions and millions of dollars a day. It is drawing America's attention away from more pressing problems in Iran, North Korea, and Darfur, not to mention on the domestic front. Iraq itself has fallen into civil war, even if those same sunny optimists who claim that all is well deny any such thing. Thousands of American men and women have been killed. Countless Iraqis -- faceless, nameless -- have been killed. Do we have any idea how much havoc has been wreaked on the Iraqi people, what suffering they endure, suffering that doesn't make our 24-hour news cycle, suffering that is conveniently ignored so as to spare us the harsh realities of war? Saddam wreaked his own havoc, of course, but the replacement of tyranny with war, and increasingly with anarchy, hardly provides much comfort that all has been for the best.

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For the sake of full disclosure, I should add here that I was at first a supporter of the war. A reluctant supporter, swayed only in the final days, when a diplomaic solution seemed impossible, but a supporter nonetheless. How innocent that time now seems, when so many of us believed what we were told about Saddam's WMDs and Iraq's imminent threat to America. Given all that Saddam had done in the past, including the gassing of his own people and the invasion of Kuwait, was it all that difficult to believe that he was indeed such a threat?

Hardly. And yet...

I, too, was wrong. Three years ago, I was a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto. I took time away from Hobbes and Locke to discuss the war with my students, most of them Canadian. They were almost uniformly against it. More inspections, they said. I should have listened to them more carefully, but I made my case, the case for liberal internationalism, a case based on human rights and the need to rid the Middle East of a brutal tyrant, to liberate the people of Iraq from the shackles of evil. It was very much Tony Blair's case.

And all looked good, at first. Remember those fast-paced days, the days of the embedded reporters capturing the rapid and relatively easy march into Baghdad? It was history in real time. It was a video game on CNN.

But it didn't take long for things to change. I celebrated the removal of Saddam -- and, even today, whatever our negativity, whatever the easy allure of relativism, we ought not underestimate the significance of removing him from power; even Task Force 6-26's Black Room prisoner abuse is minimal compared to what Saddam did -- but I obviously had far too much confidence that the war's architects knew what they were doing, that they were prepared for the occupation, that they would do whatever it took to guide Iraq, now their ward, towards democratic self-government, preferably towards liberal democracy. That was very much my defence when challenged by my students: America will make this work. Sure, it won't be easy to reconstruct Iraq, but failure simply isn't an option. I vehemently opposed Bush in 2000, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. After 9/11, we were all together, weren't we?

I turned against the war when it became abundantly clear that it was being grossly mismanaged. I had high hopes for the removal of Saddam, regime change, and the possible democratization of Iraq and, beyond that, the Middle East. And that may still happen -- whatever our skepticism, let's at least acknowledge it as a possibility, however remote. But it's clear that the Bush Administration is very much to blame for what has gone wrong -- and that includes well over 2,000 American deaths. Yet, upon this third anniversary of the start of his war, a war of choice, President Bush won't even use the word "war" to describe what's going on in Iraq. There's no civil war. Apparently, there's no war at all. The war must have ended with the conclusion of major combat operations.

Americans are being led by a cadre of the delusional.

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And what now? The deaths will pile up day after day, ours and theirs. 42 today, 55 tomorrow, and so on and so on. Who knows what these numbers mean anymore? A certain desensitization has set in. If you don't have a close friend or relative involved in the war, do you even feel anything? Or is it all just over there?

At home, the politics will continue. In our Crossfire-style political climate, the absolutism will only continue to intensify going into November's midterms. It is all so predictable. Republicans will run from Bush and try to localize the elections even as Bush's apologists (and Bush himself, who apparently focuses these days on nothing but Iraq and the midterms, the two keys to his legacy) pollute the airwaves with their sunny optimism. But conservatives, too, are reconsidering this debacle. More old-fashioned conservatives like George Will, having returned from their self-forgetting sojourn in the thickets of neoconservative idealism, are resurrecting realism and arguing that, well, the war wasn't really a good idea in the first place. Ideologues like Bill Kristol are playing the incompetence card to save the theory from the practice, even as one of their own, Francis Fukuyama, turns against them and their "flawed foreign-policy thinking". And then there's John McCain, who these days is more Bush than Bush, more neoconservative than the neoconservatives. He has his military background and his maverick credentials, but he's also the ultimate loyalist.

And where does that leave Democrats? For us, that's the key question. We saw what Iraq did to John Kerry, the bind that it places on all Democrats. Withdrawal is an option, but what form should that withdrawal take? When, and how much? It does seem that the Iraq War jumped the proverbial shark a long, long time ago, and there may very well be little that the U.S. can do to fix the mess other than to provide continuing security, but this won't be like pulling the last troops out of Saigon. An Iraq with the United States as a largely occupying force is enough of a problem. What will happen to an Iraq without the United States there at all? I'm sure you can all list the undesirable possibilities.

Ultimately, it seems to me, America must lower its expectations and get out when it can. This means continuing to train Iraqi forces, contributing to the construction of a stable physical infrastructure, and providing support for the fledging Iraqi government. It will mean standing aside and allowing the Iraqis to seize their destiny as a nation. The fragile situation in Iraq may spiral out of control, but what other options are there? It is simply no longer realistic to speak of America's occupation as in any way conducive to the long-term success of Iraqi democracy.

For this, President Bush and his allies will no doubt take credit. If, that is, all goes well. Or, rather, if all can be spun to look good. They have so far refused to be held accountable, to take responsibility for the consequences of their preemptive war. Don't look for that to change.

Democrats need to be prepared for this. Although it is the proper role of an opposition party to oppose, they will need to present Americans with leadership on Iraq, with an answer to this question:

If pulling out immediately is not an acceptable option, and if staying in indefinitely is not an acceptable option, how can we balance the need to pull out eventually and to help Iraq prepare itself for self-government without American occupation?

Their electoral success may depend on it.

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For now, let me leave you with these questions recently posed by Steve Benen at The Carpetbagger Report: "As the war begins its fourth year, and the country reflects on the tragic conflict, what are some of your personal reactions? How has the war affected you? How do you think it's affected the country (socially, politically, economically, and with regard to our security)? Will the president's backers ever give up on some of their more ridiculous defenses? What do you see as the long-term consequences of a war that taken more than 2,300 American lives, left more than 17,000 U.S. troops wounded, and now costs about $150 million a day?"

Much to ponder. Take your time.

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