Monday, March 19, 2007

Politics of the Iraq War as the fifth year begins

Tom Hayden has a good analysis of the current situation of antiwar efforts in Congress and without in There Is Still Work To Do Huffington Post 03/14/07.

Hayden favors a fixed timetable for withdrawal of all American forces. But getting there is a complicated political process. And he provides a useful discussion of the polling numbers. He writes of last November's Congressional elections, "the [anti-Iraq War] mandate was historic and unprecedented, the first time that American voters clearly cast a vote for peace against a war in progress." Obviously, that assessment involves a judgment call, but I agree with his view on that.

But he also notes that the opinion polls show mixed attitudes toward withdrawal. On the one hand, solid majorities have turned against the war and want an American withdrawal. But there isn't a clear-cut majority for "immediate" withdrawal or for using the appropriations process to cut off funding for the war. Those results are consistent with the general experience in marketing surveys, which says that consumer surveys are good at telling marketers what the problems are they are trying to solve, but not very good at defining what product or service would provide the best solution.

Providing the solution is the job of the antiwar movement and of the Democratic Party, which of course are not identical.

The memories of the Vietnam War, accurate or otherwise, still affect the debate over this war a lot. One factor that was different in the Congressional opposition to the Vietnam War is that both support and opposition to the war was more bipartisan. The Vietnam War was understood generally as Lyndon Johnson's war, and therefore the Democrats were divided over the war. Plus, the parties were not so clearly ideologically aligned. The Democrats still had many Southern members of Congress who were generally conservative and prowar. And the Republicans still had that now-extinct species known as "liberal Republicans".

Although, as Hayden observes, "The pillar of bipartisan support for this war has fallen," there is still a strong partisan alignment over the Iraq War. Last week, the Senate voted down an anti-escalation resolution 50-48, with one Republican voting for and two Democrats plus former Democrat Joe Lieberman voted for the escalation. The general message is clear: the Republican Party supports escalating the war, the Democrats are opposed. Since the public is strongly negative on the war, that helps the Dems politically and puts new pressure on the Reps. (On recent antiwar sentiment, see also
US public's support of Iraq war sliding faster now by Ben Arnoldy Christian Science Monitor 03/20/07 edition; accessed 03/19/07).

I'm much more concerned with getting the United States out of the Iraq War than I am with seeing the Democratic Party benefit by it. But the fact is that opposing the war is good politics for the Democrats. I'd much prefer to see the Dems combine good policy, e.g., demanding a six-month phased pullout of all US troops, with good politics. But Hayden's practical observation on that is also important to keep in mind:

It's difficult in any even to expect a political party, whose main purpose is winning and holding state power, deciding to cut funding when that path is not yet supported by a majority of voters. But the substantial peace bloc is entitled to real and lasting concessions in exchange for their massive support in November.

A proposal to tie funding to a six-month withdrawal deserves an up or down vote, if only to put Congress members on record. But the number willing to cast that vote should be carefully assessed. If it is less than 70, the size of the Out of Iraq Caucus, another anti-war approach may be needed.

This explains Speaker Pelosi's effort to cobble together a unified, though loophole-ridden, plan for withdrawal by 2008, a plan which at this point may lack the votes to pass the House before it faces possible death in the Senate and a veto from the president. Her measure contains dangerous exemptions permitting US forces to fight any Iraqis alleged to be al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and Americans to serve as "advisers" to questionable Iraqi security forces, as happened in El Salvador. Those loopholes need more scrutiny than they have received. But at least the Pelosi measure is tying the Democratic banner to the notion of a withdrawal timeline.
As flawed as the current House Democratic proposal is, if they succeed in attaching it to the military appropriations bill, that has the beneficial effect of presenting the Republican war supporters with a dilemma they've tried to jam the Democrats with. As Mark Shields put it on the PBS Newshour for 03/16/07:

The Republicans are going to be in a terrible position next week in the House of Representatives, in political reality. They're going to be in the position they've always tried to put the Democrats in, which is you're voting against appropriations for the troops.

And that's the vote next week. It's whether, in fact, you're going to send troops there who are equipped, who are trained, and who are armored. And the Republicans are going to say, "No, we're not going to vote for it, because we don't like other positions in it."

That is a difficult vote for them to cast. And I think it's -- I mean, this is a political issue. It's a political fight. And I think there's been very, very effective political leadership demonstrated legislatively by the Democrats in the House, particularly David Obey and Jack Murtha.
Gary Hart sees a forthcoming boom in The Lessons of Iraq Huffington Post 03/18/07:

Very soon a new industry called "The Lessons of Iraq" will be born, even as the search for the end-game continues against the back-drop of the theme "who lost Iraq." ...

Too little sober thought was given to the real lessons of Vietnam. Instead, three decades of recriminations prevented serious reflection and mature judgment. Liberal forces were seen by too many Americans as unconcerned for our security and suffered political defeat as a result. Those same forces should now take the lead in framing the debate about the true lessons of Iraq and the creation of a new definition of America's role in the world of the 21st century.
Members of Congress seem hesitant to talk about the poor state of things in Afghanistan, presumably because they are focusing on the far more urgent problem of the disaster we know as the Iraq War. But Hart observes:

We clearly had the legal and moral right to overturn the Taliban government in Afghanistan that harbored al Qaeda as it planned and carried out the 9.11 attacks. Even so, the democratization of an ancient tribal society is proving hugely more difficult than driving the Taliban out of Kabul. Indeed, it seems set on returning.
Also, saying that is not the same as saying the Cheney-Bush administration pursued the right strategy in Afghanistan. In fact, they focused on a rapid ousting of the Taliban regime when the main focus should have been doing maximum physical damage to Al Qaida cadres in a short time.

Hart also emphasizes the importance of seeking to "liberate the U.S. from dependence on Persian Gulf oil." This is something that should have been a major priority since at least the Arab oil embargo of 1973, 34 years ago. Jimmy Carter made a serious effort to do so as President but he was bitterly opposed by the energy industry and their Republican allies (and not only Republicans).

One of the lessons that the public desperately needs to take from the Iraq War disaster is a much more realistic, critical attitude toward military claims about foreign threats and the always-related demand on tax dollars. We already spend more on the military than the entire rest of the world combined. Surely that's more than enough to cover any realistic defense needs.

So our skepticism should immediately kick in when we see budget pitches like this:
Military Is Ill-Prepared For Other Conflicts by Ann Scott Tyson Washington Post 03/19/07. She reports:

Four years after the invasion of Iraq, the high and growing demand for U.S. troops there and in Afghanistan has left ground forces in the United States short of the training, personnel and equipment that would be vital to fight a major ground conflict elsewhere, senior U.S. military and government officials acknowledge.

More troubling, the officials say, is that it will take years for the Army and Marine Corps to recover from what some officials privately have called a "death spiral," in which the ever more rapid pace of war-zone rotations has consumed 40 percent of their total gear, wearied troops and left no time to train to fight anything other than the insurgencies now at hand.
However appealing it may be for us war critics to seize on a phrase like "death spiral" to dramatize the costs of the Iraq War, we need to ask just what is being claimed here by these "senior U.S. military and government officials".

Yes, there has been a lot of equipment and supplies consumed in the Iraq War that need to be replaced. But we shouldn't forget about the war profiteering of companies like Halliburton in providing that material. There should be some controls and close Congressional and Executive scrutiny of war profits in a situation like this.

And why does this new opportunity for war material providers represent a possible "death spiral"? Tyson continues:

The risk to the nation is serious and deepening, senior officers warn, because the U.S. military now lacks a large strategic reserve of ground troops ready to respond quickly and decisively to potential foreign crises, whether the internal collapse of Pakistan, a conflict with Iran or an outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula. Air and naval power can only go so far in compensating for infantry, artillery and other land forces, they said. An immediate concern is that critical Army overseas equipment stocks for use in another conflict have been depleted by the recent troop increases in Iraq, they said.

"We have a strategy right now that is outstripping the means to execute it," Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Now it's obvious to everyone that the armed forces have to make some kind of estimate about the most likely risks of combat for which they need to prepare. But just what are they planning for here? If there is an "internal collapse of Pakistan", are we going to march in and take over Pakistan, too? Are the happy Pakistanis also going to greet us as liberators and toss flowers into the paths of our soldiers?

A conflict with Iran? The only likely instance of that would be another war of choice by the Cheney-Bush administration. To put it crudely, the lack of an immediate American capability to handle a war with Iran may be the single biggest restraint on Cheney and Bush embarking on another unnecessary and self-destructive war, this time with Iran. I'm in no hurry to see Dick Cheney get additional resources for that purpose.

Congress needs to learn to ask much tougher questions about claims like this. Instead, later in the article we see Democrats just posturing to show how eager they are to provide the requested funding. To be fair, the Post may be quoting them very selectively. One question they all should be asking is what the armed forces' plans are to prepare for counterinsurgency versus conventional wars, and what are the implications of that.

Another of the lessons that should come from the Iraq War experience is a much more realistic sense of the practical limitations of American military intervention, even in "humanitarian" interventions. And hopefull the phrase "humantiarian war" will disappear from our vocabulary entirely. Anthony Arnove discusses this dilemma with reference to the current crisis in Darfur in
Four Years Later... And Counting: Billboarding the Iraqi Disaster TomDispatch.com 03/18/07:

It's okay to discuss U.S. "complicity" in human rights abuses, but only as long as you remain focused on sins of omission, not commission. We are failing the people of Darfur by not militarily intervening. If only we had used our military more aggressively. When, however, we do intervene, and wreak havoc in the process, it's another matter.

If anything, the focus on Darfur serves to legitimize the idea of U.S. intervention, of being more of an empire, not less of one, at the very moment when the carnage that such intervention causes is all too visible and is being widely repudiated around the globe. This has also contributed to a situation in which the violence for which the United States is the most responsible, Iraq, is that for which it is held the least accountable at home.
Joseph Nye in My Lesson for This Anniversary Huffington Post 03/18/07 reminds us that coming up with some high-sounding slogan to justify invading another country does not make it right:

I was recently at a dinner in DC at which a prominent neo-conservative columnist took issue with a politician who said the Iraq War was immoral. The pundit argued that our intentions of removing a mass murderer and promoting democracy were highly moral. But if we have learned anything from this war, it should alert us to be wary of such oversimplified claims of moral clarity. Even if we grant purity of intentions, this is shallow moral reasoning. We should judge morality in three dimensions - intentions, means and consequences - and this war fails on the last two counts. ... To defend this (or any future war) on the basis of the moral clarity of our intentions is impoverished one-dimensional moral reasoning. Whatever the president's motives, his inadequate attention to means and the full range possible consequences makes this an unjust war.
Nye is being generous in assuming that the intentions of the Cheney-Bush team were actually moral. Since they promoted lies to justify the war, that premise itself is questionable on its face.

Stan Goff provides a provocative look at the intersection between the needs of active-duty soldiers to frame their entry into combat with and larger set of assumptions about life and the political aspects of war in
Keeping Our Demons at Bay Truthdig.com 03/16/07.

And limiting the unilateral power of the Executive Branch is also a critical lesson of the Iraq War experience, as well as of the massive illegalities and abuses involved in the various domestic spying programs and other disasters of the Cheney-Bush administration. Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future writes in
Why Conservatives Can't Govern TomPaine.com 03/19/07:

Conservative presidents - from Nixon to Reagan to Bush - believe in the imperial presidency. They assume that in the area of the national security, the president operates above the law, or as Nixon put it, "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." They operate routinely behind the shield of secrecy and executive privilege, with utter disdain for the law. So Reagan spurned the Congress when it cut off funds for his loony covert war on tiny Nicaragua. And Bush trampled the laws to set up the torture camps in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and elsewhere. Each would seek to keep their lawlessness secret; and that would foster lies, obstruction of justice and ultimately disgrace.
Dick Cheney's rogue Vice Presidency has added a whole new wrinkle to the "imperial Presidency". And his influence has not been benign, as James Galbraith wrote two and a half years ago in Dissecting Cheney Salon 10/05/04:

The key to understanding Cheney is that he is a throwback -- to a brand of strategic thinking that bedeviled the Cold War. He is part of the legacy that runs back to Generals Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power of the Strategic Air Command in the late 1950s. The two tenets of this legacy are absolutely consistent: 1) Overestimate the enemy and govern through fear, and 2) hit the enemy before it can hit you. In four words: "missile gap" and "first strike." ...

Cheney's actual conduct in Iraq recaptures almost exactly the two operational doctrines of the shadow Cold War. It is now obvious that his strategic vision centers on physical control of the world's oil. And his justification for the attack on Iraq, delivered on Aug. 26, 2002, was a pure statement of the hidden doctrine of the first strike.

Maps of Iraq's oil fields and lists of foreign companies doing business there were found in the archives of Cheney's Energy Task Force. What does this prove? First, that the task force was not solely concerned with domestic energy policy and regulation, as it was said to be. It was, at least in part, a forum for considering the control of global oil. At worst, the maps and lists constitute prima facie evidence that the conquest of Iraq was on the corporate agenda from the beginning of the Bush years.
It will take a long time to clean up the messes Cheney and Bush have left us.

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