Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Iraq War triumphalism

It's not really new. The Cheney-Bush administration, including all our glorious and infallible generals, has said all along that things were going wonderfully in Iraq, that we were winning and winning and winning some more. Of course, after The Surge started, everybody in the administration started saying that we had been on the verge of disaster, though the Republicans had been spewing accusations of treason and such at anyone who was saying that in real time. But as always when they speak in present tense, everything is going wonderfully in Iraq.

It is a significant turning point (finally!) that the Iraqi government and their close ally Iran insisted on an agreement for an American withdrawal with a firm timetable that excludes the option of permanent American bases. If we go back to the partly-unstated but well known intentions of the Cheney-Bush administration in 2003, they were going to overthrown Saddam, get rid of the non-existent "weapons of mass destruction", install a democratic model regime with a model neoliberal economy, make Iraq into an ally of Israel, and maintain permanent military bases in Iraq as the jumping-off point for further wars in the Middle East.

Now, they are essentially claiming victory because a hideous situation created by the US invasion itself is now more stabilized. And Iraq has a Shi'a-theocratic government that is closely allied with Iran and has practiced massive sectarian cleansing to win (at least the first major round of) their civil war with the Sunnis. Four and a half million refugees have been uprooted from their homes as a result of the violence and the sectarian cleansing. Something like a million or more Iraqis have died as the result of the war and the conditions it created. The economy is devastated, the infrastructure is wrecked with little actual development having been accomplished under the American occupation, and provision of electricity has never made it back to the level it was under Saddam's regime.

Oh, and the war made Iran into the predominant power in the Middle East.

I would call that record a "heckuva job", a phrase that the Katrina disaster instantly turned into an insult rather than praise. But to celebrate it as a success is just a prelude to a stab-in-the-back view of the war: our brilliant generals and the steadfast Republicans "won it" but then the Democrats came in and everything went to hell.

Right now, they're working mainly on their the-Republicans-won-it theory. After what we've seen the last eight years, it's not surprising that they would try. But do Democratic leaders have to help them do it?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was on Meet the Press Sunday 01/04/08, spending about half his time making Republican points and the other half making Democratic points, the latter pretty poorly. I was struck by this exchange with his empty-suit interviewer, David Gregory:

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the war in Iraq. In April of 2007, this is what you said: "I believe myself that ... this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything." Were you wrong?

SEN. REID: David, I first met General David Petraeus in Iraq. He was training the Iraqi forces at that time. At that time, he knew it wasn't working. After he became the commander in Iraq, he and I sat down and talked. He said to me, and he said within the sound of everyone's voice, "The war cannot be won militarily." I said it differently than he did. But it needed a change in direction. Petraeus brought that about. He brought it about--the surge helped, of course it helped. But in addition to that, the urging of me and other people in Congress and the country dictated a change, and that took place. So...

MR. GREGORY: But you said the surge was not accomplishing anything. Even Barack Obama said last fall that it exceeded everyone's expectations and succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

SEN. REID: Listen, at that--the time that statement was made, the surge--they weren't talking about the surge. Petraeus added to the surge some very, very interesting things that changed things. He said a lot--just simply numbers of troops is not going to do the deal. What we need to do is work with the Iraqi people, which we haven't done before. That's where the Awakening Councils came about, as a result of David Petraeus' genius. He's done--he will be written about in the history books for years to come. My original statement was in keeping what David Petraeus said; that is, the war cannot be won militarily.

MR. GREGORY: Do you believe that the war in Iraq has been lost?

SEN. REID: I don't think at this stage we can talk about that with any degree of sensibility. That has to be something that will talked about in the history books to come. We...

MR. GREGORY: So you spoke to soon in 2007?

SEN. REID: David Petraeus and Harry Reid spoke at the same time. David Petraeus said that the war cannot be won militarily, I said what I said. Who, who phrased it the best is...

MR. GREGORY: You said that the war is lost. Today, in 2009, that's no longer your view?

SEN. REID: David, listen, someone else will have to determine that as the years go on. What has the war done? It's brought about--it's destabilized the Middle East. We have a civil war going on in Israel. We have a civil war in Iraq, as indicated today, more than 50 people killed with a bomb in Iraq today. We have Lebanon, a civil war there. We have Iran thumbing their nose with every, everyone. And if that weren't bad enough, our standing in the world community is so far down as a result of this war, so--and that doesn't take into consideration the tens of thousands who have been injured...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. REID: ...and the thousands have been killed in the war. So it's, it's--historians will have to talk about what the war in Iraq did. But I think historians today indicate, as I have, the outline that I've given. [my emphasis]
Not to let the airhead interviewer off the hook, Gregory's questions there were directed toward eliciting a "gotcha" moment; he didn't probe Reid on how the horrendous results could be considered anything other than a loss or a disaster.

Even when Reid tried to point out some of the downsides, he could only come up with a fumbling reference to American casualties an muddled references to continuing violence in Iraq and the enhanced position of Iran, though it wasn't as coherent as my summary might suggest. Also, "We have a civil war going on in Israel." What? That's the first time I recall anyone referring to the Israel-Palestine conflict as a civil war. It's hard to guess what if anything he may have meant by that, though presumably he's talking about the current Gaza offensive.

The Democrats let the stab-in-the-back narrative on the Vietnam War keep them on the defensive for decades. The boys and girls of our punditocracy are already heavily invested in the notion of wimpy Democrats vs. studly, manly Republicans. They will likely eat up the Republicans' stab-in-the-back story on the Iraq War. The Dems need to be working now to spike that one. Not praising "David Petraeus' genius" like a starry-eye sports fan.

There's something actually pathetic about senior officials in a democracy thinking they need to hide behind the skirts of some general to state their opinion about the Iraq War. It's one more sign of the unhealthy degree to which our political culture has become militarized. Genius or not, Petraeus allowed himself to become the political spokesman for the Cheney-Bush administration's Iraq War policies in a way that generals shouldn't.

Juan Cole did a couple of year-end lists at his Informed Comment blog. One of them was Top Ten Myths about Iraq, 2008 12/31/08. One of them he describes as follows, having to do with The Surge:

6. The sole explanation for the fall in the monthly death rate for Iraqi civilians was the troop excalation [sic] or surge of 30,000 extra US troops in 2007. In fact, troop levels had been that high before without major effect. The US military did good counter-insurgency in 2007. The major reason for the fall in the death toll, however, was that the Shiites won the war for Baghdad, ethnically cleansing hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from the capital, and turning it into a city with a Shiite majority of 75 to 80 percent. (When Bush invaded, Baghdad was about 50/50 Sunni and Shiite). The high death tolls in 2006 and 2007 were a by-product of this massive ethnic cleansing campaign. Now, a Shiite militiaman in Baghdad would have to drive for a while to find a Sunni Arab to kill.
Robert Perry also reminds us of the need to counter Iraq War rightwing revisionism in Two Dangerous Bush-Cheney Myths ConsortiumNews.com 12/26/08. Among several important points about the reality of The Surge, he includes:

--Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas made “death-squad” raids more difficult but also "cantonized" much of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, making everyday life for Iraqis even more exhausting as they sought food or traveled to work.

--An expanded U.S. policy of rounding up so-called "military age males" locked up tens of thousands in prison.
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