Thursday, 20 March 2008

Busted: Iraq, Five Years Later

The thought of looking into George W. Bush's mind is a scary prospect but I wonder if someone had been able to that in 2003 what they would have found: Would the president honestly have thought the war in Iraq would still be raging five years after it started? While even the biggest optimist couldn't have honestly expected a "quick and surgical" war, most of us probably hoped for something other than what we have: a "long and drawn out" one.

But yesterday Bush again declared victory, or rather, said the recent troop surge "opened the door" to victory. The door's open, but it seems to be jammed with a lot of corpses.

My own newspaper's editorial board has never quite abandoned its support for the war or its belief that Bush is doing the right thing, as in today's editorial. Contrast that with this editorial from the Guardian, the first sentence of which lets you know what it thinks: "The invasion of Iraq was a monumental miscalculation, whose dimensions are still coming into focus five years to the day after it began."

Both papers agree on one thing: We're presented with a lot of bad options and the trick now is to pick the least bad one. Of course, an anniversary is a time for looking back as much as for looking ahead. So what can we say about the last five years?

I'm reminded of an experience my father told my brother and me about when we were boys. He was a young Air Force pilot about to go TDY, which meant taking his plane on a cross-country trip. He and his navigator were going to a base in Nevada, putting them close to Las Vegas, whose casinos they planned to visit. Before they left, they hatched a "plan": They did a little homework on winning at blackjack and brought a modest stake. In my childhood imagination I see them parking their plane on the runway and heading straight to the casino still in their flightsuits, but I'm sure they changed before they went. However they were dressed, they headed to the blackjack table and quickly lost almost their entire wad. Chastened, they decided to regroup. They went to the craps table, hoped for the best and were quickly rewarded: With a few rolls of the dice they got back nearly all their original stake. At which point they went back to their blackjack "plan" and promptly lost all their money.

I don't know if my dad told us this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of gambling. It's more likely he just thought it was a good story and didn't mind coming off badly in it. The biggest impression it made on me, though, was to foster the belief that blindly sticking to a pre-conceived plan is sometimes the worst thing you can do.

Okay, at least Dad had a plan, which seems to be more than can be said of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the others who prosecuted the invasion. I'm willing to believe they believed they were doing the right thing. It's just that they've botched it every step of the way since then that is inexcusable. And the worst thing of all is that some--Cheney mainly--still insist that the war in Iraq has something to do with 9/11 and the war on terror. (Afghanistan did, remember, and that war doesn't seem to be going any better.)

Reading all the Iraq war coverage can be fatiguing. And except for the fact that Americans--and Brits, and Iraqis (mainly Iraqis)--are still dying one would be tempted to just turn the page. But that would do a disservice to all those who have lost their lives there. I recommend this Iraq anniversary package from Reuters. The five-minute introductory movie is ostensibly about how dangerous it is for journalists working in Iraq (seven Reuters staffers have died there, the vast majority killed by U.S. troops) and yet how vital it is for them to be there. But the film also shows us the horrors of war, horrors that in their specificity don't often make it to our front pages. It's also a sobering reminder of the great toll taken on the Iraqi people. Broken by Saddam Hussein they may have been, but it's hard to see how the last five years has
helped them heal.

And what of the next five years? Blackjack or craps? Or just walk away from the table?


mark from alexandria said...

Charlie Rangle, the gravel-voiced New York City Congressman, submitted a bill to bring back the draft, early in the Iraq war. His thought was that it was the quickest and most effective way to get the troops home. Of course, the bill went nowhere, but I still believe Charlie was right.

Richard said...

If you'll forgive my dissenting from you on your own blog, the analogy is a little misleading. Your Dad could have walked away from the table without repercussions. However, the imponderable is what the repercussions would be if the US walked away from the table that is Iraq.

Jo said...

...and if the repercussions would be better or worse for Iraqis if the US just walked away. We can make semi-educated guesses about that, but we can't *know* what the right answer would be.

The US has been a bull in a china shop here, perhaps a irrelevantly good-intentioned bull. But with the china crunching underfoot with every little shift in our balance, what's left as a good move?

John Kelly said...

Good points all. Just once, though, I'd like to see politician--whether it's George Bush or whomever--say, "We screwed up. I screwed up. I really didn't think this is what would happen, but now that it has, here's what I think we need to do." Would that make us look "weak" to the rest of the world? Maybe, but it would reassure me that our leaders aren't living in some alternate universe.

Yes, my analogy isn't a perfect one. It would have been better if my father had lost so much money that he was in debt to the Mob and in danger of losing his thumbs if he walked away from the table. The point I was trying to make was our current strategy seems to be stick to the "plan," one that's bankrupting us as surely as whatever idiotic card-counting scheming Dad was using. All's I'm saying is, when the plan doesn't work for FIVE YEARS, maybe it's time to switch to another plan.

Henry said...

Much as I opposed the war - and the hopelessly corrupt and incompetent way the occupation was handled - I think Richard has a point. I'm not sure the only choices are either carry on like we are or pull out like a kid abandoning a broken toy. (sorry, another bad analogy). So here's an alternative plan:

1) We stay only as long as the majority of Iraqis want us to, as expressed in regular, country-wide, secure ballots. We owe it to them to stay for as long as they think they need us to provide security and help repair the damage.
2) In the meantime, all US troops receive proper training in peacekeeping and Arabic. Coalition troops who kill civilians (and journalists) will be tried by Iraqi courts.
3) We refuse to allow the army to lower its recruitment standards. If it is short on manpower, we institute a draft, with no college exemptions. (I'm with Mark from Alexandria on that one)
4) We admit the true costs of the War/Occupation and immediately raise taxes to the level necessary to pay for it all. Additional taxes on those currently benefitting financially from the war - e,g. oil companies, arms manufacturers, and private security companies.
5) Full investigation into the misuse of funds during the occupation. Anyone found responsible for losing funds must pay us back (possibly out of the enormous royalties and speaker fees some of them now command)

Sound like a plan?

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Good plan, Henry, except for the draft. Worth remembering come election time that Barack Obama voted against the war, unlike Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

In London last weekend I saw a demonstration against the war. I can't believe it's been 5 years and things are still grim for the Iraqis. Where has all that money gone?

mark from alexandria said...

Actually, Sarah Laurence, if I am not mistaken, Obama was not in the Senate at the time of the vote on the war. So, he neither voted for or against it. What he would have done, given, the now-discredited rationale, in the post-9/11 paranoia and frenzy that was Washington at the time of the vote, is conjecture. Its easy to say, "I would have done so and so, with 20-20 hindsight. With the "evidence" presented and with the imprimatur of as respected a man as Colin Powell, its hard to imagine what one would have done if one were present.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...


Sorry, I stand corrected that Obama didn't vote against the war in the Senate. As you rightly pointed out, the vote predated his term.

Nonetheless, Obama publically voiced his opposition to the war while he was in the Illinois State Senate at the time. There has been no change in his opinion. Read this CNN link“Obama: Early opposition to war shows better judgement.”