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Who's Afraid of History? | The Nation

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Who's Afraid of History?

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Start with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gates announced on June 10 that he would not reappoint General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "At this moment in our history," Gates said, it was not in the interests of General Pace, the nation, and--oh so, predictably-- "our men and women in uniform" (today's last refuge for scoundrels) to have the "divisive ordeal" of confirmation hearings. "The focus of his confirmation process would have been on the past, rather than the future," Gates lamented.

About the Author

Stanley I. Kutler
Stanley I. Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate (Norton).

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The Democrats appear to be anti-Iraq War. But they surely are not acting like opponents of imperial overreach.

David Petraeus is not a man preparing to leave Iraq. His report to Congress serves as a glimpse of coming attractions for Surge 2.

Gates betrays his old CIA apparatchik origins, with his now-snug fit into the Bush-Cheney presidency that believes history is best ignored. Remember, he aided in consigning to the ashcan the Iraq Study Group's report with its painful reconstruction of four years of failure. Gates must be without irony for he served as a member of that group, but now he has reaffirmed that the only thing to learn from history is to forget it.

Gates and the President understandably are eager to avoid any inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq invasion, war and occupation. But what about Congress? Alas! Senate Democrats are poised to continue their familiar, comfortable role as enablers of the Administration's dodges. Levin is as ahistorical as the Defense Secretary, when he echoed Gates, saying that Pace's confirmation hearing "would have been a backward-looking debate about the last four years."

But exactly! History counts; it matters. How often must we remember Lincoln's injunction that "we cannot escape history"? When we better understand what we have done, then perhaps our future course can be better informed. How will we know where to go if we fail to understand how we arrived at this point?

President Bush and Gates have settled on the nomination of Admiral Michael G. Mullen, currently Chief of Naval Operations and a member of the Joint Chiefs, to succeed Pace. Does he not share some responsibility with Pace for the past four years? Or was his service merely window dressing? Will Congress take a convenient pass, and refuse an inquiry into the Joint Chief's performances--with Admiral Mullen as a supposedly fully-functioning member?

Gates predictably described Mullen as a man with "vision, strategic insight, and [an] integrity to lead." Mullen's friends describe him as a "pragmatist"--that special Washingtonian stamp of approval. Mullen has said he weigh all options on the surge. But we have no word as to how and why; we have no knowledge that Mullen made his views known to either his peers, his underlings, or his superiors, including the President. Gates and the President do not know that this man will fully support or enlarge the current Iraq policies? That's hard to believe.

Levin's committee--including Senator Hillary Clinton, assuming she appears and reads the material--surely must question Admiral Mullen about those policies, and what he proposes to do now. They can heed John F. Kennedy's warning of exactly forty-five years ago. "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth--persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic," Kennedy warned. "Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

Now we have a new myth generating: We must remain in Iraq to "keep the peace." The Administration hints at various modes of maintaining our presence in the area, all underpinned by the example of our fifty-year "presence " in Korea.

The Mullen hearings are expected to begin as early as July; they should offer an opportunity for the Democrats to fully question the Iraq adventure--and what is to come. Perhaps Mullen might expand on his May 2007 Pearl Harbor speech when he said,"the enemy now is basically evil and fundamentally hates...the democratic principles for which we stand.... This war is going to go on for a long time. It's a generational war." George W. Bush has to love this man.

For Levin and his colleagues a simple question begs a simple, direct answer. Committee Member Senator James Webb (D-VA) has said we must get out, but how we leave is of profound importance. So, what options can they offer other than the President's dire alternative of the fifty-year occupation, à la Korea? Democratic presidential candidates, ever reluctant to alienate the military and fearful of talk radio's right-wing pseudo-macho howls, sound like they are trying to revive the absurd "enclave strategy" from the Vietnam years. Candidate Bill Richardson has noted that other Democratic candidates differ among themselves on how many troops to leave behind. "I would leave zero troops. Not a single one," Richardson said recently. Senator Levin might ask Admiral Mullen to respond to that.

Mullen's nomination hearings should be an opportunity to debate our future course. How will we achieve troop withdrawal, or is withdrawal merely troop redeployment? President Bush repeatedly has said we will leave Iraq if we are asked. Does Mullen believe that--or is a more accurate, inevitable parallel the German occupation of Europe and we will leave only when we are forced out?

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