Thursday, March 20, 2008

Welcome to Year Six

World War II did not last five years. Nor did World War I, the Korean War, the Civil War, or the American Revolution. Many full presidencies never reach the half-decade mark. Even the original mandate of the Starship Enterprise called for the mission to be accomplished within a five year period, and they were traversing entire galaxies.

But the Iraq War, a ruinous, gratuitous conflict authored by a dishonest, incompetent administration, has now entered its sixth year. To celebrate, John McCain, who still doesn't understand the difference between Shi'a and Sunni Islam, dragged himself over to Baghdad to babble about victory before heading over to Israel to fit in a photo-op over at the Wailing Wall. To hear McCain talk, one could imagine that he still expects the conflict in Iraq to end with somebody (Osama bin Laden? The ghost of Saddam? Some anonymous warlord?) eventually surrendering to the United States like Lee handing his sword to Grant at Appomattox.

Meanwhile, back at home, George W. Bush, whose capacity for rationalization must daunt O.J. Simpson, keeps talking about winning as though he has any idea what that would mean. The United States, he insists, is making progress. The mass media, compliant as ever, fail to point out that there has been but one conflict in American history in which military and political leaders could claim only "progress" after five years of fighting. And that, of course, was the Vietnam War, another deadly monument to the failed ambitions of arrogant men.

The Bush Administration has moved the goal posts so often during the current war that it is sometimes difficult to remember the original promises made to the American people. But a quick accounting would include the following. The United States, we were told, would 1) topple Saddam Hussein; 2) seize and neutralize his weapons of mass destruction; 3) secure the Iraqi oil fields and help Iraqis to rebuild their economy; and 4) bring Sunni and Shi'a together to establish the first functioning Muslim democracy in the Middle East. Moreover, we would accomplish these objectives with 5) minimal loss of American life; 6) minimal death and destruction visited on the Iraqi people; and 7) only a small commitment from the U.S. Treasury.

Of these seven promises, only one—the removal of Saddam—has been accomplished, and that occurred within the first months of the conflict. The WMDs, of course, did not exist and the continuing inability to restore Iraqi oil production has helped to drive gas prices to record levels. Most tragically, however, the final three promises have all been irrevocably broken. This unnecessary war has cost nearly 4,000 American troops their lives (and tens of thousands of others their health and well-being) and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died. Most of the rest suffer under a crumbled economy, collapsed infrastructure, and daily threat of violence. And the cost of the war to American taxpayers has already reached into the multiple trillions, crippling the country's ability to meet its own needs just in time for what appears to be the onset of a major economic downturn.

Under these circumstances, debates over whether The Surge is succeeding are diversionary at best. To the extent this year-old policy is working, all it has done is to stop the bleeding. We are still losing, on average, one soldier a day, and Iraqi citizens continue to forfeit their lives to random bombings and other acts of terror. Misery and deprivation remain daily facts of life for a people who have already suffered far too much. It would have seemed impossible, back in 2003, to imagine that this once proud country could be worse off under U.S. command than under Saddam Hussein. But George W. Bush's presidency has been all about realizing the unthinkable.

But even this ignores the main point. The objective of the Iraq War, when it was launched five years ago, was ultimately political. That is why the U.S. did not withdraw forces as soon as the statue of Saddam came crashing down to Earth. The explicit American goal, made clear by the president and his chattering lackeys, was the establishment of democratic, constitutional rule in Baghdad. The mission was, after all, rather cynically labeled "Operation Iraqi Freedom". With Hussein removed and the nerve gas and nukes clearly nonexistent, the only possible justification for continuing a military presence in Iraq was to oversee the transition to self-sustaining, democratically elected, ethnically tolerant government.

By now, it is clear that this will never take place. Further, even one year after The Surge, not a bit of progress has been made on bringing liberal democracy to the Iraqi people. The Surge, therefore, is a failure, and the war has been lost. Whenever Bush, McCain, and the camera-hogging Joe Lieberman talk about the successes achieved by General Petraeus since last spring, simply remember this: if anyone had told you five years ago where we would be in March, 2008, in terms of costs and casualties and unmet objectives, you would have dismissed that person as insane. Even most of the opponents of the Iraq War probably didn't believe that it would go this badly.

At some point in the future, the conflict in Iraq will end. The best case scenario is that it will end in a stalemate, with a fake government following a fake constitution, while mullahs and warlords divide the country into factions and collect the spoils. If this is accepted as victory, it will further illustrate the descent of the United States as a world power. At least when the U.S. fought to a draw in Korea, the primary goal—preventing Communist troops from overtaking the south—was achieved. In the case of Iraq, all we can hope for is to leave the country only a little worse off than when we invaded. And that's the best case scenario, the one that doesn't include civil war, mass starvation, a Kurdish conflict with Turkey, or an Iranian puppet government in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, regardless of how or when this war ends, we will never recover the 4,000 irreplaceable young men and women who gave their lives so that dishonest politicians could play Stratego with real human beings. We will never bring the permanently injured back to full health, nor will we soon restore our economy to any semblance of balance. The hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis will never return to their families, and the miseries visited on a whole nation will not be forgotten. The rage stirred in the hearts of young Muslim men and women will not be stilled even by the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

We have, in short, already lost this war. The only remaining question is how much more we will lose before (and after) we finally get out.

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