The elephant in the room in political discourse these days is, of course, Iraq.
It’s a combination of who to blame for the current situation, and what to do going forward. It’s made far more complex by the fact that Iraq is as much an internal political issue as it is an external issue; a consequence, I think of our somewhat foolish belief that internal arrangements of power matter far more than our circumstances in the world.
But that’s the reality we face, and to deny it is as stupid as to deny that the tides will come in whether or not we whip them.
I’ve been wrestling for months with my own position, trying to find a position where I didn’t feel like a fool and waiting to see whether events would clarify things for me.
I haven’t and they haven’t.To be blunt, all of the significant positions seem somewhat foolish to me.
The “stay the course regardless” position is foolish, first and foremost because those playing that hand don’t have the chips to stay in the game. There is not today enough political commitment in the US to see another three years of the war as it is through, and I can’t imagine the war as it is lasting less than three years. It is also foolish because the rationale behind the war has lost its strategic heart – the reason to do it – and no one has yet come up with a meaningful replacement. So we’re playing Irish sit-down except with guns and bombs.
The “get the hell out now” position is more foolish, because it – first and foremost – implies that the world is really a hall of mirrors where all the motion and action is simply a reflection of our own. If we come home and sit quietly, this position says at root, then things will be OK. There is a variant, which I call the ‘magic underpants’ model, in which we will pull out quickly and then – SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN – and then all will be better. What, exactly, is something? And while I’ve acknowledged that the current war is a strategic failure, it may not be the worst failure we can have strategically – and while it is not a tactical success, there are tactical outcomes I can readily imagine that are a lot worse for the Iraqi people and for us.
Then there is the “walk a tightrope” position, which somehow believes there is a variant – a twist to the left with the fingers crossed behind the back and an over-the horizon force ready to bomb the crap out of people and fastrope out of helicopters and Do Some Damage – kind of withdrawal which is not really a withdrawal. I was in high school, trying to convince reluctant girls to have sex with me the last time I used arguments like that. “Yeah, it’s sort of like sex, but not really, because…we have most of our clothes on!!”
Look, the people taking those positions are serious people; I’m not choosing Djerejian or Lind as punching bags, because they are no one’s punching bags.
This last position is close to, but sadly too far from the honorable position, which is to look at what we’re doing in Iraq, see that it’s a part of a larger conflict, and set out a clear discussion of what exactly it is that we mean to accomplish, how we’ll do it, and how we’ll know it’s working. It’s a different path that doesn’t involve threats we can’t back up, total abdication of responsibility, or lying to the world and to ourselves about what we’re really doing. It’s the place I’d really like to be, and a political movement I’d like to be a part of.
And the real problem is, if you’re just a random citizen like me, that you need to go stand with someone else to have any say in what happens in a situation like this. Where I want to stand is with some sensible people; people who don’t give a damn about domestic politics and who care deeply about how this plays out in the world more than they care about how it plays out in their own careers in the commentariat, academe or politics.
If anyone has found those people, please point them out to me in the comments.
So I’ve got to pick a position, and pick a group to stand with.
Bluntly, after a whole lot of thought, I’ll stand with the “stay the course” folks. Yeah, not a deep shock, but not a gimme decision either. Why do I take that position? There are a few reasons.
First, and foremost, the other side is evil – I have no other word for people who slice people’s necks and videotape it as a boast and a threat. What’s our military might for if not to occasionally kill evil people, and make other people wonder about the evolutionary advantage of choosing evil over good? If you listen to the troops in Iraq, the sheer badness of the people we’re fighting over there – the ones who set off truck bombs in marketplaces crowded with women and children – is one of their main motivations to keep going. I see no reason to disagree with that. I do recognize that we’re fighting a bunch of factions there, and when we’re just fighting the one that fights us, as opposed to the one that sets off bombs in laden gasoline tanker trucks in the middle of neighborhoods, I’ll be happy to reconsider.
Secondly, because while the other positions I know of – ‘quit’ and ‘kind of quit’ – are really hard to back away from (it’s really hard to convince a retreating army to attack), it’ll be a lot easier to back away from “we’ve decided to win” when and if someone comes up with a better plan that gets us to where we want to go and costs a lot less in lives and treasure.
Third, because who knows – we just might win while we’re figuring out what else we’d like to do.
Fourth, because as a negotiating position “we’re going to win, thank you very much” is pretty much impossible to beat. Try negotiating with someone while telling them “My wife says I can only stay and negotiate with you for fifteen minutes, and if we can’t make a deal, I have to give you what you want.” Almost all wars are won at the negotiating table. the desired outcome of this war is a negotiated settlement. How the hell do people think they can make a successful negotiation out of “you have until September and then we quit”??
Fifth and last, because I look at the people on different sides of the argument, and I just can’t stand with most of them. The ones I can stand tend – almost entirely – to be the Victor Hansens, the Blackfives, the Norm Gerases. There are good people struggling with the issue on the other side – Phil Carter comes to mind immediately – but you know, most of the people beating the drums for withdrawal are just doing it for reasons that I can’t make sense of. Yes, they want to save lives, but I don’t see a historic awareness that goes past Howard Zinn. When I talk to them about the likely consequences of withdrawal, their response tends to be Bush broke it, it’s his problem. Well, I helped him, I guess, and fixing it is partly my problem as well.
And I honestly can’t see either of the Standard Positions as leading Iraq – or the Middle East, or the Islamist/western conflict – any closer to resolution.
So we stand here with our finger in the leak – in the bloody wound – and we try and keep the bleeding to a level where the patient doesn’t die while we look for a better plan.
And I have no illusions about the condition of the patient – as Iraqis continue to vote with their feet (one thing I will give the antiwar commentariat props for is their push to open the doors to Iraqi refugees. As much as I wish they would and could stay and fight, I am the last person – from the safety of my pricey New York hotel room – to block the door).
But as long as every other position looks worse, the position to take is the best one available to you. And so I’ll take a stand, and start doing something about it.
Because one other reason for my taking this position is that it is fundamentally the only one where some of the facts on the ground can be changed. American public opinion – which is the strongest card the opponents of the war have to play – is volatile right now. And maybe a large enough chorus of small voices could help shift the needle enough to matter.
So it’s time to start singing, I guess.
There are some other things we need to do, as well. We need to look at how we can make this war far less expensive – less expensive in lives – ours and Iraqi noncombatants – and treasure. While we are doing far better on the ground in much of Iraq, we’re doing a horrible job here. One thing I’d love to see would be some Truman Committee hearings here; here’s someplace where John McCain could spend some his remaining political capital, and maybe build the place he deserves in history. Something else for the vets to request while they are in Washington.
Meanwhile, I’ll go stand behind them, as I stand behind them in almost all things.