When this November Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha -- a pro-war, ex-Marine, Vietnam Vet Democrat -- proclaimed that it was time to reconsider our military presence in Iraq, his change of heart was promptly reviled by the Bush League. Murtha and those Democrats who sided with him, like Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi, were accused of wanting to "cut and run." GOP attack ads on TV featured them behind a waving white flag, followed by the image of a soldier in Iraq that implied these Democrats had failed to support the troops, an argument which has become the last refuge of scoundrels.
Unfortunately for the administration and its opinion minions, a sizeable number of other erstwhile war supporters agree with Murtha's conclusion if not his solution -- namely, the American public. A Gallup poll released in early December reported that 54% of common folk believe our inhabitation of Iraq is a mistake; other polls place the percentage higher. Even benighted Republican lawmakers have taken note, as the Senate demonstrated at the end of November when it politely asked the White House for a timetable for troop withdrawals. Bush, however, rejected not only that request but even Virginia Republican John Warner's proposal for quarterly statements about the progress of the war.
Never ones to abandon a failed strategy, the White House junta put the Dissembler-in-Chief out on the stump to preach his "Plan for Victory," which sounded suspiciously like "staying the course." The W. insists that our troops can only be withdrawn when we have achieved "complete victory." While this phrase is clearly designed to sound good to Americans, who tend to see anything less than complete victory as unconditional surrender, Bush has yet to define it. At the beginning of the war, it was supposed to mean toppling Saddam Hussein and defusing his Weapons of Mass Destruction. But Hussein was removed, and as it turned out he had no WMDs, so that Mission was Accomplished. Since then another 1700 Americans have died, and far more Iraqis.
Various definitions of "victory" have spun out of the White House in recent memory: we can't leave until Iraq has a stable democracy and an organized security force. The December 14 parliamentary election was offered up as evidence that staying the course is on course. To be honest, those of us who recall wistfully our own democracy in the U.S., in the years before the miscounts of Florida and Ohio, should be thrilled to see a former tyrannocracy turn electoral. But many observers cannot help wondering if the Bush administration knows what democracy means.
It is not nay-saying to note that, if democracy follows its most logical path in Iraq, majority rule could mean a Shiite-led government with friendly feelings toward Tehran, an outcome not likely to please either the Sunnis or the U.S. Many experts on the region -- among them Rami G. Khouri of the Beirut Daily Star -- expect democracy to result in more Islamist leadership, if not to Iraq's decentralization and ultimate fragmentation into ethnic states, as happened with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. We have every reason to believe that, for Bush and his buddies, "victory" in Iraq has to include permanent military bases and a pipeline to the West. However, as Khouri notes, keeping bases in Iraq will be an invitation to continued terrorist attacks. After all, it was the bases left on Arab soil after the first Gulf War that begat Al-Qaeda.
In any case, the Sunnis -- the core of the anti-occupation insurgency -- may well continue to regard themselves as a conquered people, much like the Palestinians or for that matter the Catholics of Northern Ireland. Israel and the United Kingdom are both democracies of long standing, but both have faced violent, decades-long rebellions. If -- as the White House occupant also asserts -- U.S. forces cannot leave Iraq until the last terrorist has either strapped on an exploding waistcoat and rocketed to Heaven or been flown to an offshore American gulag, they will be dug in there another half century at least.
Despite their mounting doubts about the war, Americans are loathe to simply walk away. The same polls that show them aching for a way out of Iraq also reveal that as few as 17% would favor a speedy pullout. The racial memory of Vietnam haunts them. Both sides allude to it in this debate. The antiwar faction sees Iraq as yet another quagmire, while the pro-warriors see it as a chance to prove the myth propounded by Reagan and Rambo in the 80s: we could have won in Vietnam if the administrations of Johnson and Nixon, the peace movement, and the liberal defeatists in Congress had untied the hands of the military and "let us win." To support their stance, they invoke helicopters fleeing the roofs of our Baghdad embassy and the Green Zone and another black mark in the history books.
Ironically, so engulfed is our population in the murky waters of Lethe that the majority have forgotten what made the Vietnam experience so drawn out and excruciating. Americans believed as early as 1968 that that war was a mistake and probably unwinnable -- and at a cost of 5000 dead troops per year rather than the 1000 we expend now. But given repeated chances to endorse withdrawal through electoral choice, the majority opted for another seven years of war. As a warrior people, Americans hate quitting. They would rather go down bleeding.
Likewise, both sides cite the troops as a rationale for their case. For the antiwar, supporting the troops means bringing them home, while the prowar claim we can only justify the 2100 deaths, 15,000 disabled, and many thousands of others psychologically traumatized by doubling, tripling, or quadrupling those numbers. We hear that a similar divide marks the troops themselves: while some, like Iraq War vet and Ohio senatorial candidate Paul Hackett, come back wondering what we are doing there, many others in uniform endorse the Mission and want to see it through.
When Murtha made his case for withdrawal, he offered pragmatic reasons such as Iraq's drain on "procurement programs that ensure our military dominance." Indeed, in worrying about the hollowing of American forces, Murtha echoed many inside the Pentagon -- even allegedly Donald Rumsfeld, who has been unwilling to commit more troops and resources for just that reason. It was comic indeed to hear the W. assert in his Annapolis speech that he would not allow "Washington bureaucrats" to make the decisions that generals on the ground should make, when the bureaucrats of his administration are doing just that. The longer our troops remain in Babylonian captivity, the weaker we are as a world power. Where once Bush threatened to leave Iraq through Iran and Syria, now both Tehran and Damascus can look him in the eye and reply, "You and what army?"
Furthermore, the entire Bush legislative agenda has been propelled to backburner status; as one congressional leader stated off the record, the "cost of Iraq is everything else Bush wanted to do." The less political capital Bush has, the dimmer his star (already a red dwarf) and the worse his presidential legacy. True, it is painful to see the national treasury hemorrhage, leaving no money to rebuild the hurricane-ravaged coast of our own Gulf or preserve our quality of life. But that is just what one would expect of a superpower in decline, one that entered the 21st century embracing the values of the 19th, whether regarding the role of the military in foreign policy or the role of religion in domestic affairs.
While cutting our losses might be the moral or pragmatic thing to do, we can take some chilly comfort from the fact that it won't happen in the foreseeable future. Vietnam was used to demonize liberalism and the left, resulting in the retarded revanchism that dominates us today. Maybe this time we should do the wrong thing, and let our power addicts have it their way. Register protest, but don't demand a quick and easy out. As long as there are plenty of young men and women willing to follow the leader, no matter how whacked he may be, let them go. Wish the best for the long-suffering Iraqi people. After tepidly embracing Hussein in the 80s, only to bomb his nation back into the Stone Age in the first Gulf War and keep it there through a decade of sanctions, the U.S. owes them something -- whether in lives or money. If they really want us there, we stay the grueling course, whatever the cost to us. If they don't, we also continue to pay the price.
The sad, slowly mounting death toll can be an ever-present reminder, year after year, of what it means to leap before you look. So can the irredeemable national debt, our hubris mortgage. "Complete victory in Iraq" can become our overarching national purpose for this century, as "Manifest Destiny" was in the 19th century and "the American Dream" in the 20th. Meanwhile, the rest of the world can go its own way, relieved of the burden -- and short-lived benefit -- of a unipolar globe. So much for the Pax Americana.
European states needed the disastrous bloodletting of World Wars I and II to finally overcome their addiction to military power. They needed the implosion of their empires in order to evolve. Maybe Iraq can be to the U.S. what India was to Britain, and Algeria to France.
They finally learned their lesson. It will be interesting to see if we can.
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Our Babylonian Captivity