Is Iraq worth the shedding of any more American blood? For most Americans, polls show the answer has become a resounding no. For the more than four years of the Iraq war, George W. Bush has acted like a snake-oil salesman at a carnival sideshow and treated Americans as a bunch of backcountry rubes waiting to be fleeced. All too often he has succeeded. A majority in Congress, entranced by his spiel, lined up and supported spending that is mounting into the trillions. In the beginning, many Americans supported the invasion. Some even encouraged their children to enlist and march off to Mr. Bush’s war in the belief that Iraq was a threat.
Make no mistake about it. Iraq is George W. Bush’s war, a new kind of conflict for which our soldiers were hopelessly unprepared. Despite his cruelly obvious attempt to prolong it long enough to hand off to his successor, Mr. Bush owns this war lock, stock and barrel. And, no matter what he does to fob it off on someone else, it will be pinned on him by historians just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow. The time has come to turn off the shrill calliope, and tell Bush & Company to fold its tents like an Arab tribe that has sullied the only well in the oasis, and depart.
A Congressional Circus
The week began with a two-day dog-and-pony show put on by Gen. David Petraeus and American Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat and an Arabist. It was baldly timed to coincide with memorial ceremonies marking the sixth anniversary of the triple tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001. The General assiduously took notes through the questioning, studiously avoided directly answering most questions, and substituted a smooth and memorized patter that regularly danced around the subject. Low-key and unaggressive, Ambassador Crocker seemed ill at ease and uncomfortable yet gave occasional answers with surprising bursts of frankness.
The Monday morning joint hearing before the House armed services and foreign affairs committees got off to a shaky start with a comedy of errors. The microphones for the two witnesses were dead, and remained that way as technicians scurried around trying to restore them to life. In the meantime a protest staged by Code Pink and Iraq Veterans Against the War started at the rear of the hearing room. Visibly agitated by the commotion, Rep. Ike Skelton remarked to ranking Republican member Duncan Hunter over his own open microphone, “That really pisses me off down there. Those assholes…” A staff member quickly shut off the sound system.
Chairman Skelton opened the hearing by noting, “this may be the most important hearing of the year.” It proved to be a classic Washington lead balloon. He cautioned the two witnesses that they must answer the question “Why should we continue sending our young men and women to fight and die if the Iraqis don’t make the tough decisions?” Unfortunately, neither Skelton nor any other representative asked the witnesses that key question. Instead, they fed them nothing but easily fielded softball questions. When asked whether he had enough troops to do the job in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus answered: “I have what we have, what the military could have”—but he never answered the question.
In contrast to Monday’s meager fare, Tuesday morning’s hearing before the Senate foreign affairs committee offered some meat and potatoes. Democratic chairman Sen. Joe Biden asked Gen. Petraeus whether he would recommend a continuation of the present strategy—130,000 to 160,000 U.S. troops shooting and dying in Iraq—if the situation next March were the same as it is now. Petraeus: “That’s a really big hypothetical.” Biden snapped, “I don’t think it’s a hypothetical.” The General beat a hasty retreat and produced an answer. “I’d be very hard-pressed to recommend that, at this point,” he admitted.
When Republican Sen. John Warner asked the bemedaled General during the afternoon session before the Senate armed services committee, whether the current strategy in Iraq “will make America safer,” Gen. Petraeus replied, almost predictably: “I believe this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objective in Iraq.” Unsatisfied with this answer, Warner repeated his question: “Does that make America safer?” Petraeus: “Sir, I don’t know, actually.” It was the answer that summed up the Iraq paradox in a nutshell.
All About Oil
Several of Gen. Petraeus’s answers made reference to America’s “national interests” in Iraq and the Middle East. With oil topping $83 a barrel, anyone who buys gasoline at a gas station pump knows what our national interests are in that region. Even former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan made this frank observation in his just-published memoir, “Whatever their publicized angst over Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ American and British authorities were also concerned about violence in an area that harbors a resource indispensable for the functioning of the world economy.” Mr. Greenspan added, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” The White House screamed bloody murder over these remarks, and Mr. Greenspan tried to amend them in interviews as he was flogging his book, but the damage was done.
Meet General Petraeus
Now 54 years old, and despite the chest full of service ribbons he displays, Gen. Petraeus is an officer who never saw combat until he was 50. That came in 2003, when he was a two-star Major General commanding the 101st Airborne Division in the Fifth Corps drive up the valley of the Euphrates. He had missed the Vietnam War as a cadet at West Point (where he graduated 40th in a class of 834). Stationed stateside in 1991 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he also missed the Gulf War. There is no doubt about his personal courage, however. He demonstrated this in 1991 after being shot accidentally by one of his own soldiers in a training exercise, and again in 2000 after a low-altitude fall when his parachute collapsed while he was participating in a civilian skydiving jump.
Ambitious to a fault and self-promoting (staff members privately refer to him as “King David”), he has parlayed the co-authorship of a new counterinsurgency manual for the Army and Marines into the impossible task of trying to pull Mr. Bush’s chestnuts out of the fire. Gen. Petraeus has admitted privately to having presidential ambitions: “Not in “08—but maybe in ‘12.” Before the election in 2004, then a three-star Lieutenant General, he wrote a partisan op-ed piece in The New York Times describing how the war in Iraq was going swimmingly and predicting victory was near, an opinion that undoubtedly pushed many votes in Mr. Bush’s direction.
John Boehner, Expert on the Cost of War
For many Americans, the payoff incident of the week came on the evening of the presidential self-anointment with laurels. Interviewing House minority leader, Representative John Boehner Rep.—Ohio), CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked him whether “the loss in blood, the Americans who are killed every month” in Iraq was worth it. Exhibiting a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease, Boehner glibly replied that it was “a small price to pay.” His characterization of the sacrifices made by the thousands of dead and wounded American soldiers and Marines did not sit well with grieving parents and spouses. Mr. Boehner should know all about patriotic gore and selfless sacrifice, although he has anything but a distinguished war record. During the Vietnam War, he got himself out of the Navy after only eight weeks of basic training because of “a bad back.”
The President’s Thursday Night Spiel
On Thursday night, our president cum carnival barker delivered a spiel that reached a new high-water mark in unbelievability. His announcement that he would withdraw 5,700 troops from Iraq by Christmas and reduce the occupying force from 20 combat brigades to 15 by next July was an unconvincing ploy. Anyone who follows the war in newspapers or on TV knows many of these same troops would be coming home anyway in April because their tours of duty, already extended from twelve to fifteen months, had run out.
With an equally straight face, he extolled “the 36 nations” whose troops are fighting alongside our soldiers. That inflated number came as a surprise to most observers, who would be hard-pressed to tick off the names of the countries whose tiny contingents of mostly non-combatant troops are still in Iraq. At the peak of the coalition, only 31 nations had troops in Iraq. The U.S. has 160,000. Albania has 120. Bulgaria has 150. On a recent European trip, President Bush deliberately made detours to these two countries to thank them for their contributions.
The newest big lie being peddled to Americans by the President and his administration is that the surge is “working.” The irony is that if the surge were working because of the additional troops, it only tends to prove the rightness of Gen. Eric Shinseki’s now-famous opinion delivered before the attack on Iraq. His estimate then was that conquering and occupying Iraq would require a force on the order of several hundred thousand troops.
And in his 17-minute speech Mr. Bush finally acknowledged that the war is being prolonged solely for politically expedient reasons at the expense of American troops by saying that success in Iraq will require “U.S. political, economic and security engagement that extend beyond my presidency.” As if acknowledging the sad state of the Iraqi government, he coined the awkward slogan, “Return on Success” as a reworking of the time-honored business metric, “Return on Investment,” and said, “The more successful we are, the more American troops can come home.” Listeners wondered what had happened to the earlier slogan, “When Iraqi troops stand up, American troops will stand down.”
The President’s news that large numbers of troops would remain in Iraq through the next presidential campaign and beyond should have come as no surprise. Although it usually marches in lockstep with the President, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post surprisingly found his announcement disquieting. Titled “The Korea Parallel” and pointedly recalling a country in which we have stationed troops for more than a half-century, it said of Mr. Bush: “He revealed no dramatic changes in overall policy, effectively consigning the future of Iraq, if not the entire Middle East, to the American political process.” The Post editorial continued, “At the same time, senior administration officials have made it clear all week that they intended for there to be a major U.S. military presence in Iraq for years.” It concluded with the prediction that the person who is elected president of the United States in 15 months “will no longer be free to address the Middle East with irresponsible rhetoric and little else.”
Such grim news gives Republicans intending to run for any office in 2008 a severe case of heartburn. At this very moment American blood is still reddening the sands of Iraq, and will continue to do so as a consequence of the President’s childishly stubborn refusal to accept the reality of the bleak political and military situation there. One doesn’t need a crystal ball to know that the Iraq war will be the central issue in that election. Candidates will either be for it or against it—there’s no Mr. In-Between. If substantial numbers of U.S. troops are still dying in Iraq in November 2008, a Republican won’t even be able to get elected dogcatcher.
Polls following the hearings and the President’s speech indicated no change in the American people’s attitudes. They have had their fill of this disastrous war and want to get the killing and the bloodshed over as quickly as possible and bring the troops home. One has to wonder why the broad spread of these sentiments has not penetrated the Republican minority, which still insists on standing behind an unpopular president. Like President Herbert Hoover who continued to predict that prosperity was just around the corner while the country sank deeper and deeper into the Depression, President Bush has repeatedly claimed “victory is near, give me another six months.” Unfortunately, we have granted him so many six-month extensions the country is now 54 months into an endless war we are not any closer to winning.
Republican legislators now resemble tobacco smokers who are well aware of the lethal effects of the habit they cannot break. So caught up are they in their habit of blindly supporting the President, their voting habit, like smoking, has become what psychologists call “a restless urge to suicidal self-destruction.” In his desperate attempt to avoid responsibility for the cataclysm that has engulfed his administration and with nothing at stake in the election, our selfishly inflexible President will reward Republicans’ fealty to him by dooming them to defeat in 2008, effectively ushering them into retirement with him.
Anyone for dogcatcher?