Lately, I've found myself profoundly wishing that Barack Obama would deliver another speech, similar to the one he made a few weeks ago on race relations, but this time it would be about the Iraq War. Not a policy stump speech along the lines of "this is what I would do as President," but instead, something that uses his incomparable synthesizing skills to break out of the polarizing frame we are currently stuck with. The frame which continues (ad infinitum, ad nauseum) to define our only options there as a choice between "staying the course" until we "win," or "cutting and running," which signals giving up, surrendering, and thus "losing," to the enemy--a strategy that, in the words of John McCain, would be "an unconscionable act of betrayal."
If you happen to believe (as I do, and pretty much everyone else I know does) that our very presence in Iraq is itself the "unconscionable act;" if you believe that we need to leave in order for the violence generated by our presence to stop; then how to reconcile this with the seemingly legitimate claims that a U.S. withdrawal would plunge Iraq into chaos, civil war, perhaps even genocide, and provide a victory for al-Qaeda? Where is the non-polarized path between this Scylla and Charybdis that has yet to be charted? It strikes me that only Obama is capable of presenting a non-manipulative, non-agenda-driven overview to the public of what is really at stake here. Only Obama can launch the real debate our country needs to embark on. Instead of this, we are lost in the crosshairs of haggling over the role of superdelegates, party in-fighting, and whether that sniper fire in Bosnia ever happened to Hillary.
In the absence of an Obama-crafted overview of the war, I can strongly recommend a new book called "Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq." The author, Jonathan Steele, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, offers cogent answers to such questions as: Why did the occupation fail? Could it have "worked" or was it bound to be a disaster? Why did resistance develop? Who bears the blame for the carnage, initially between the occupiers and insurgents, and later among Iraqi's themselves?
One way Steele's book radically changes the usual dichotomous frame is that he starts from a different premise: not only is the Iraq war lost, but it could never have been won in the first place. Before they ever began their unfortunate, illegal, and unnecessary invasion, Bush and Blair were both presented with what adverse consequences there might be to such an undertaking, but they chose to ignore them. Can what was a mistake from the start ever be corrected by a prolonged continuation of the same mistake? There is a refusal even now to acknowledge that anti-Western Islamism has grown stronger in Iraq (and elsewhere) because of the occupation. Iraqis do not trust America's intentions. Their fear has always been that Washington wants to take control of their country and its oil, and that US troops will not leave. Lord only knows how they ever got that idea!
Steele argues that Iraqi suspicion of US intentions and their resentment at not having the right to be in charge of their own country has created a resistance which cannot be ended without ending the occupation itself. Keeping troops in Iraq is the problem, not the solution. The longer they remain, the more the insurgency grows.
Because there is no plan for a troop pull-out, Steele is convinced that this is the cancer that has undermined the occupation from the start. It aroused Iraqi suspicions, ignited nationalist anger, and produced the insurgency. Most of all, it has turned Iraq into a magnet for jihadis all over the Muslim world. The assumption now is that the US intervened for its own purposes, and not to liberate the population.
Unless the US states clearly it does not want permanent military bases and proposes a date for withdrawal of US forces (don't count on George Bush or John McCain to do any of that), we will face an ever-widening resistance that we will not be able to defeat militarily. The real failure, according to Steele, is the lack of awareness that Western armies cannot successfully take over Arab countries and force them to run along Western lines. Resistance--the defense of Iraq--is a Muslim obligation, on a par with fasting and prayer. Those who defend the occupation, however, do not distinguish between resistance and terrorism. Bush's central blunder in Iraq has been the failure to announce an early time table for leaving. Now that running the country has proved to be much more difficult than was expected, the issue has turned into a macho exercise of "staying the course" no matter what.
So, if by some miracle Barack Obama, without my knowing, were somehow to look over my shoulder here, I would ask him to balance out the opposites for us in this messy terminal situation, with that unique purity of vision he alone possesses, entering the discussion with his whole being as a moral act. Until then, my friend Cliff McReynolds has sent me a poem he wrote, called "Give War a Chance," so I'll end instead with two stanzas from the central section of his poem.
"And oh, Mr. President
Just because war has created hatreds that never die
And led to more war for 5000 years
Some have lost their faith in it.
But thank god you live in the real world
Rely on common sense and logic:
Better that our soldiers accidently disembowel
Other people's wives and kids
Hiding in closets or beneath their beds
Than pay too much for gasoline
The well-meaning say: people just don't like it when you invade their country
See their homes destroyed, their children on fire
And trying to run without their feet
When blood and flesh get suddenly stuck to walls in market squares
These things bother them and inconvenience us
But this is the price we pay
OK, so we make a few hundred million enemies more,
But surely we can still eat out, obese and liposuck
My goodness--is that too much to ask?"
This, just in from Reuters:
Published on Thursday, April 3, 2008 by Reuters
Iraq’s Sadr Calls Million-Strong March Against US
by Peter Graff and Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD - Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Thursday for 1 million Iraqis to march against U.S. “occupation” next week after his Mehdi Army militia battled U.S. and government troops.
The government said it would not attempt to block the march if it was peaceful although Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who ordered a crackdown on militia in the southern city of Basra last week, threatened more strikes against Sadr’s strongholds.
A statement released by Sadr’s office in the holy city of Najaf called on Iraqis of all sects to descend on the southern city, site of annual Shi’ite pilgrimages that attract hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
“The time has come to express your rejections and raise your voices loud against the unjust occupier and enemy of nations and humanity, and against the horrible massacres committed by the occupier against our honorable people,” it said.
The demonstration, called for the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad on Wednesday, raises the prospect of unrest coinciding with a politically sensitive progress report to Congress by the top U.S. officials in Iraq.