September 8, 2003

Operation Meatshield

On the situation with Iraq, at this point, lining up behind the President with any kind of enthusiasm is the worst kind of partisan bad faith, an abandonment of reason, ethics, and pragmatism.

I can accept a skeptic who wearily, resignedly argues that because the President represents the United States and because he’s committed us as he has in Iraq, we have no choice but to look for the best possible long-term resolution of that commitment. I can accept someone who reminds me that there were many people whose motives for supporting the war before it began were well-intentioned, reasonable or potentially legitimate. I continue to feel, as many do, that unseating Saddam Hussein is something that anyone ought to recognize as a positive good. I can even accept, as I noted some time ago on this blog, that there are many within the Bush Administration who may have had good intentions or reasonable opinions in promoting an attack on Iraq.

I am not prepared to cut any slack to anyone who thinks that supporting the current policy as it has been shaped by the President and his advisors is sensible, effective or ethical. I’m not interested in the outrageous hair-splitting and relativist, deeply postmodernist nonsense being spewed out by many conservative commentators, the knowing utterance of lies and half-truths, the evasions, the excuses, the total disinterest in the hard questions that now confront us and the total inability to concede even minimally that many of the critics of the attack on Iraq predicted much of what has come to pass.

I continue to believe that there is a sound argument for the judicious use of force in pursuit of a legitimate war on terrorism. This is precisely why I feel such white-hot fury at the current Administration. It is not merely that we were lied to, and not only that the one thing I was prepared to concede to the Administration, that the possession of weapons of mass destruction presented a legitimate casus belli, turns out to have been the biggest and most aggressive lie atop a pile of misstatements and deceptions.

What fills me with loathing and anger is precisely my belief that there is a war on terror, and that we are losing it . The President is the Commander-in-Chief, but his battle plan stinks. Forget all the admittedly important talk about imperialism or the morality of war or anything else for the moment. The first issue, before we get to any of those debates, is that the top general has opened his “central front” on a battlefield that favors his enemy, exposes his own troops, and has no strategic value whatsoever, in service to a speculative, half-baked geopolitical vision, a "democratic domino theory", which is crude at best and quasi-psychotically delusional at worst.

The fundamental strategic idea of the war in Iraq, when the dust of the initial campaign settled, turned out to be a kind of 21st Century Maginot Line, plopping a bunch of US troops down in an exposed situation and daring every possible organization and group to take a shot at them, while also leaving endless space for geopolitical end runs around the fortress. Worse, for the mission of reconstructing Iraq to succeed, there is no way for the troops to hide or defend themselves fully from attack. There are even some conservatives who have been brazen enough to say that this is a really good idea, that US troops are “flypaper” for terrorists. Who is the political constituency betraying our soldiers? Who is failing to support U.S. servicemen? Anybody who calls for them to be “flypaper”, to be meatshields, who asks them to serve as impotent human targets, that’s who. I don't think it's possible to be more cynical than that, to be a more callous armchair general.

I’ve seen the press report on military families expressing support for their men and women in harm’s way, and they should keep on doing that. Those families shouldn’t fool themselves, however. Those men and women, courageous and giving as they are, are in almost all cases struggling mightily to make the best of a bad situation. In many cases, considerable good is coming from their efforts. Iraq may yet emerge as a freer, better, more hopeful society, and the Iraqis will be able to thank the United States if that happens. But whatever is happening in Iraq that is good, it is not a victory in the “war on terror”. Yes, Iraq may come out of this better. It is hard to imagine that it could be much worse than it was under Saddam Hussein.

However it comes out, its final state will mean almost nothing in determining whether terrorism becomes an even more potent global force: it will only determine whether one nation and one people live better or worse than they did before 2003. In contrast, the manner and style with which this war was prosecuted in the first place encouraged and empowered terrorists, and the necessary long occupation that now must ensue—for I acknowledge that we can’t just pack up and leave, that milk is spilt—has given terrorists an easy target and enormous ideological capital all around the world.

If you have a loved one serving in Iraq, and you believe that we have to take the fight to terrorism, then tell the President he’s fighting in the wrong place and more importantly in the wrong way. Tell him that his mistakes in pursuing this war have made terrorism stronger. Don’t let him use your loved ones as target practice for terrorists, and don't let him misuse their sacrifices for narrow, selfish, partisan gain. Ask him to use American military power where it needs to be used in that struggle, and to forbear using it in ways that actively strengthen terrorists.

If you believe instead that the war in Iraq is the first strike in a global war on tyranny, then ask some tough questions of the President. Why is Iraq different than Liberia? Or the Congo? Or North Korea? Or Saudi Arabia? And what happens after you unseat the tyrants? Just how do you create liberal democracies using military troops? If you have family in the US military, ask yourself whether your loved one has been trained to be a civilian administrator, a mediator, a political scientist, a lawmaker, a traffic cop, a speechmaker, or an anthropologist. Ask yourself whether our fighting men and women have been given the tools or the practice or even just the money and materiel to succeed in this mission, and whether you support their enlistment in what is surely a war that will last decades and cost many of their lives, the war against all tyranny everywhere. Ask yourself if you hear even a peep from anyone in the Administration who seems to have the slightest glimmer of a clue about how to create democracies abroad through military occupation, or if any of the right-wing blowhards who have promoted the war seem to either.

This is either a war against terror, fought in the wrong place, in the wrong way, by the wrong leadership, or it is a wider war against tyranny and for democracy, fought without even the faintest clue of what to do next by a leadership that barely understands or believes in democracy themselves. It is rapidly becoming an endless misadventure whose only continuing justifications lie in the repeated errors of the people in charge of it. They fail, and then use their failures to argue that those failures are why they must be allowed to fail some more. Don't let them. We cannot withdraw quickly or easily now, but we can ask that a failed leadership shoulder the burden of their failures where it belongs, squarely on their own backs rather than on the backs of U.S. soldiers.