“Trust me when I tell you things are so much better in Iraq,” said one US military official to me on my recent visit to that war-ravaged country. I didn’t know whether to scream or pull the remaining two strands of hair out of my head. I was in Iraq as part of a delegation of eight members of Congress, led by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Everything we have been told about Iraq by the Bush Administration has either been an outright lie or overwhelmingly false. There were no weapons of mass destruction; we have not been greeted as liberators; and the cost in terms of blood and treasure has outpaced even their worst-case scenarios. Trust is something I cannot give to this Administration.
If things in Iraq are so much better, why are we not decreasing the number of US forces there? Why is the insurgency showing no signs of waning? Why are we being told that in a few months the Administration will again ask Congress for billions of dollars more to fight the war? Why, according to the World Food Program, is hunger among the Iraqi people getting worse? It’s time for some candor, but candor is hard to come by in Iraq.
We were in Iraq for one day–for security reasons, it is US policy that Congressional delegations are not allowed to spend the night. We spent most of our time in the heavily fortified Green Zone, which serves as coalition headquarters. It’s the most heavily guarded encampment I’ve ever seen–and it still gets attacked. I even had armed guards accompany me to the bathroom. The briefings we received from US military and diplomatic officials were, to say the least, unsatisfying. The Nixonian approach that our military and diplomatic leaders have adopted in dealing with visiting members of Congress is aimed more at saving face than at engaging in an honest dialogue. At first, our briefers wanted to get away with slick slide presentations, but we insisted on asking real questions and attempting to get real answers.
During one such briefing, Lieut. Gen. David Petraeus, tasked with overseeing training of Iraqi security forces, informed us that 147,000 Iraqis had been trained. That sounded good to me. Perhaps we could start reducing the number of American forces, I suggested. But upon further questioning, General Petraeus conceded that less than one-fourth of the 147,000 were actually “combat capable.” Why didn’t he say that to begin with? I asked–respectfully–our military and diplomatic officials what the gap was between the Iraqis we have trained and the number we needed to train in order to draw down the number of US troops. I could not get a straight answer.
During the morning of our visit, US military officials crowed about a recent operation in which Iraqi security forces had killed eighty-five insurgents. By the afternoon, when more reports came in, it was unclear how many insurgents had actually been killed and whether the Iraqi security forces had exaggerated their own actions.
I asked both General Petraeus and our embassy about US plans to build military bases in Iraq, which in my view would indicate a prolonged US presence. I was told–emphatically–that there are no plans to construct military bases. Yet Congress recently passed a huge supplemental wartime appropriations bill that includes, at the request of the Bush Administration, $500 million for military base construction. In Iraq.
Shortly before we traveled to Iraq we visited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who lamented the mistakes the United States has made post-invasion, including the total dissolution of all the Iraqi security forces. He said, “The army you disbanded is now the army you’re fighting.” But I couldn’t get a single US official to acknowledge any mistakes. The standard line remains, “We’re moving in the right direction.”
It’s hard to believe that after a two-year occupation the average Iraqi isn’t getting tired of the overwhelming US presence. We met with several Iraqi women leaders, including members of the National Assembly, who told us that there was more electricity available in Iraq before the invasion than afterward. It’s also certain that the insurgency uses our presence as an organizing tool to recruit members and weapons. While we can all be encouraged by the turnout in the recent Iraqi elections, it is impossible for the Iraqi people to truly determine their own fate in a climate where there is no security.
And while US officials point to a declining number of coalition casualties, there is still an unacceptably high level of violence in Iraq. One military leader told us they can tell that things are changing for the better because when US helicopters fly over certain areas of Iraq, Iraqis wave. Well, I took a helicopter ride (it’s too dangerous to drive) from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone wearing an armored vest and sandwiched between two heavily armed American soldiers who were pointing their guns down at the ground. I suggested to the military leader that perhaps he was confusing a wave with a plea not to shoot.
Our young men and women in uniform are performing their difficult duties extraordinarily well. Indeed, the only honest and direct responses I got from any American in Iraq were from the soldiers. They told me they had been instructed by their superiors not to share any complaints with visitors.
What worries me almost as much as our misguided policy in Iraq is that so many of my colleagues and so many citizens have become resigned to the fact that the war will go on. Congress is not being inundated with letters and phone calls and faxes and e-mails and street protests demanding an end to our presence in Iraq. President Bush’s re-election seems to have taken much of the energy out of the antiwar movement. My recent visit to Iraq only strengthened my belief that this war is wrong. And only renewed, passionate dissent by the American people can end it.