The Nation

Greenspan, Iraq & Oil

For the last few years, the Beltway punditocracy and think-tank-ocracy have blasted antiwar protesters for their "No Blood for Oil" banners, buttons and signs. Simplistic, if not utterly simpleminded, they rail. Will those who've policed what is permissible in our debates about the reasons why Bush & Co. launched this disastrous war now target their venomous attacks on former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan? They now have reason to--but don't hold your breath. According to Bob Woodward's Washington Post cover story about Greenspan's forthcoming memoir, to be published this Monday, the former Fed Chair writes: " I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

Beware of Fat People

There is no doubt that there is plenty to be concerned about when it comes to our unhealthy diets. Yes, a number of us eat too much food, especially the worst possible kind. Why make do with one hamburger patty, when you can have two, and please, please don't forget the bacon, mayo, or oodles of melted cheese. All of it over-processed and drowning in saturated fat. Yummy!

But it's equally true that the shock/outrage/concern over the "obesity epidemic" -- especially as it gets played out in the MSM -- is often a flimsy pretext to beat up on people who aren't thin, and vent the fat-phobia of our inner anorexic/bulemic, much of it masquerading as science.

A great example is the absurd claim made recently in New England Journal of Medicine that fat is similar to a contagious virus "spread from person to person like a fashion or a germ," especially among friends. So my chance of becoming obese is 57 percent higher if my pal gains a lot of weight over a certain period of time -- even if she/he lives on the other side of the country, or even the world.

Talk about a good reason to stay away from fatties...

The argument just didn't sound right to me when I first heard it -- and certainly didn't co-relate to any reality I could detect in my varied body-shape/weight circle of friends. So I was delighted to read this blistering take-down in TCS Daily penned by Jonathan Robison, who exposes the research for what it is: junk science that can't tell the difference between cause and corelation. Here's an especially damning bit:

"Perhaps most disturbing is that, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of media images relating to the article were pictures of women, it turns out that the supposed impact of a friend's obesity on a friend's obesity (the strongest association of the BMI's of all those observed) was only significant when both friends were male.

Have the researchers not heard that, aside from not being a good predictor or mortality or morbidity in males or females, use of the BMI is particularly problematic with males because it does not distinguish between muscle and fat and thus mislabels significant numbers of men as being overweight and obese when they are not?"

Robison's concerns echoes an interview I did a couple of years ago with Paul Campos, the author of The Obesity Wars, who rightly argues against the over-emphasis on weight as a marker of health:

"One is that for the vast majority of people, weight simply isn't going to tell you anything relevant about their health in and of itself. And second that among those groups that do show some meaningful correlations with health, we need to unpack the extent to which the weight is causal or merely a marker for other things, such as poor nutrition, socio-economic status, weight cycling brought on by dieting etc."

In any case, whether we're obese or anorexic, the basic underlying condition is an unhealthy, pathological relationship to food, or what Campos describes as "a form of eating-disordered thinking." And both the fast-food and diet industries -- which is once again obsessed with size at the expense of nutrition -- are equally an expression of our sick culture.

The Ambitious Delusions of George Bush and David Petraeus

We now learn that General David Petraeus fancies himself a Dwight Eisenhower for the 21st century.

According to a report in London's Independent newspaper by the reliable Middle East observer Patrick Cockburn, the U.S. military viceroy in Iraq would like very much to return from his mission and -- like the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II and of North Atlantic Treaty Organization in its aftermath -- mount a bid for the White House.

Petraeus has apparently been so open in expressing his "long-term interest in running for the US presidency" that Sabah Khadim, a former senior adviser at Iraq's Interior Ministry who worked closely with the general in Baghdad, recalls, "I asked him if he was planning to run in 2008 and he said, 'No, that would be too soon'."

Such are the political calculations of the man whose embrace of President Bush's war has become so complete that he and his aides have radically altered the manner in which statistics are gathered on violence in Iraq in order to foster the fantasy that the fight has taken a turn for the better.

"General Petraeus has a reputation in the US Army for being a man of great ambition. If he succeeds in reversing America's apparent failure in Iraq, he would be a natural candidate for the White House in the presidential election in 2012," explains Cockburn. "His able defense of the 'surge' in US troop numbers in Iraq as a success before Congress this week has made him the best-known soldier in America. An articulate, intelligent and energetic man, he has always shown skill in managing the media."

The problem, of course, is that Petraeus's "open interest in the presidency" might, Cockburn suggests, "lead critics to suggest that his own political ambitions have influenced him in putting an optimistic gloss on the US military position in Iraq "

It is Petraeus's willingness to apply the optimistic gloss that marks him as a worthy successor to George Bush, who in Thursday night speech to the nation pronounced himself well and truly pleased with his general's recitation of the administration's talking points. Based on general's testimony, Bush is claiming "success in meeting (our) objectives."

The president's "return on success" is an empty promise that a small number of troops already scheduled for withdrawal from Iraq may, in fact, be withdrawn. At the same time, however, Bush acknowledges that this "success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my Presidency."

Translation: For all the window-dressing talk about drawing down troop levels, Bush continues to peddle the " stay-the-course" message that has been his theme since the occupation of oil-rich Iraq went awry more than four years ago. And, once more, the president is asking Congress to provide him with more money for more war.

All that has changed is that the president now has a medal-bejeweled general who is willing to gloss over the failure the naked emperor so desperately seeks to define as "success."

Bush and Petraeus have joined their ambitions -- one for a presidency that is not summed up by the word "failed," one for a presidency of his own.

Ambition is, unfortunately, the wet nurse of delusion -- a delusion so severe that Bush has seldom hesitated to compare his meandering "war on terror" with the fight against fascism.

For their own reasons, the president and Petraeus feel they can afford to maintain the war until they figure out how to rearrange the letters of the word "quagmire" to spell "victory."

That will not happen. Bush's will be a failed presidency. And Petraeus's will be not be a presidency at all.

Unfortunately, on the way to their shared fate, the commander-in-chief and his general will preside over thousands of additional American deaths, tens of thousands of additional Iraqi deaths, the continued collapse of this country's global reputation and the emptying from our treasury of the resources that might have made America and the world more secure, more functional and more humane.

Petraeus may fancy himself a latter-day Eisenhower. But he has shown none of the wisdom of the man who, recognizing the folly of turning the Cold War into a hot fight, campaigned for the presidency in 1952 on a promise to end the bloodshed on the Korean Peninsula -- and, when elected, did so quickly and honorably.

To those who suggested in 1953 that it was necessary to wage an endless ground and air war against Chinese communists who were portrayed as being every bit as diabolical as the targets of the "war on terror," Eisenhower responded, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. [...] This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."

Six years later, as he was finishing a presidency that had, for the most part, maintained the peace, Eisenhower counseled against paying too much heed to the pleading of generals and politicians for new fights.

"I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments," Ike told British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. "Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."

And where do the people stand after weeks of propagandizing by the president and his Petraeus with regard to the war to which they have attached their ambitions?

A new poll of Iraqis, conducted by ABC News, Britain's BBC, and Japan's public broadcaster NHK, finds that 70 percent of those surveyed say they believe security has worsened in regions where the Bush/Petraeus surge has been focused. Another 11 percent of the people in whose name Bush claims the occupation must continue say the buildup has had no effect.

A new poll of Americans, conducted by the Gallup organization just prior to Petraeus's testimony, 58 percent rated the surge a failure. Perhaps more significantly, at least for the general's ambitions, 59 percent predicted that history would judge the whole of Bush's preemptive war with Iraq to have been a failure.

That is a seven percent increase from a year ago, when voters were preparing to reject the war and the war president's party at the polls. And while the testimony of a general and the preaching of a president may move some poll numbers temporarily, their empty words cannot change the reality that Eisenhower was right about such endeavors. "All of us have heard this term 'preventative war' since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that is about the first time I heard it," the 34th president told a press conference in 1953. "In this day and time... I don't believe there is such a thing; and, frankly, I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing."

Those are the words of a general who had the wisdom required to assume the presidency, and of a president who had the wisdom to serve as commander-in-chief. It is a deficit of such wisdom that disqualifies both David Petraeus and George Bush, and that ill serves both Iraq and America.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

A War We Just Might Lose

Written by Matthew Blake:

Back in July, support for the war in Iraq was at an all-time low, with prominent Republican Senators like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Pete Domenici of New Mexico advocating the need for an exit strategy. But then, as the New York Times notes Thursday, the White House unveiled a new campaign to sell the surge.

Key enlistees in this PR effort were Brookings Institution Senior Fellows Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack. Their July 30 New York Times op-ed ("A War We Just Might Win") and endless parade of subsequent public appearances supposedly lent credibility to the idea that US military commander David Petraeus (who invited his old Princeton buddy O'Hanlon over for a visit) was winning over Iraqis, leading to region-by-region improvements and an overall decrease in violence.

On Thursday, O'Hanlon and Pollack assembled at the National Press Club, along with four other Brookings colleagues, to evaluate the surge in the wake of Petraeus' and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker's testimony on Capitol Hill.

The panel reached a consensus that a real change in Iraq policy will only come with a new president. They also agreed--O'Hanlon and Pollack included--that the stated goal of the surge--to create space for political reconciliation--had not been achieved. Yet O'Hanlon and Pollack continued to put a positive spin on the war while their colleagues offered damning indictments.

O'Hanlon and Pollack both spoke of a "Sunni awakening" and credited the US military with gains in specific provinces such as Anbar and Mosul. "Petraeus and Crocker are pragmatic," O'Hanlon said. "They adopted beyond the counterinsurgency manual."

But their Brookings colleagues pointed out that the official name of the surge is the Baghdad Security Plan and Baghdad is neither secured as a city or a site for the national government. "The surge is not meeting its stated goals of buying time for Iraqi leaders to reach political reconciliation," said Brookings Senior Fellow Philip Gordon.

And Gordon and his colleagues directly differed with O'Hanlon and Pollack on the question of whether the surge should be given more time to work.

"The bar for success in Iraq is falling so quickly that we better duck before it hits us on the head," Gordon said. "Whatever happened to a model democracy?"

Brookings Middle East policy expert Bruce Reidel said the opportunity costs in Iraq are too great to stay. "You cannot judge this policy alone," he said. "You put forces in some place and you can't put them somewhere else."

Brookings Senior Fellow Susan Rice, a foreign policy advisor to Senator Barack Obama, spoke of a "fundamental disconnect between our military strategy and the realities on the ground."

"There is an insurgency and a raging civil war," she said. "The surge is a counterinsurgency tactic not relevant to dealing with the civil war."

And moderator Carlos Pascual ended the session noting, "Getting a country in the middle of a war to politically fix themselves is a departure from any historical precedent."

Before the war, Brookings played a major role in drumming up support for the invasion among Democrats. Since then, most of its foreign policy, as evidenced by Thursday's event, have become war opponents. We'll see if these dissenting colleagues get to join O'Hanlon and Pollack on the talk show circuit.

Post-Petraeus, Obama & Clinton Jockey for Antiwar Position

In the aftermath of General David Petraeus' stay-the-course presentation to Congress and as George W. Bush prepared yet another major speech-to-the-nation on Iraq, the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates each tried to position him- or herself as the potential commander in chief most in favor of removing U.S. troops from Iraq. But in doing so, can any of them score political points?

During Petraeus' multiple appearances on Capitol Hill, neither Senator Hillary Clinton nor Senator Barack Obama stood out when legislators questioned the Bush administration's pitchman for the war. When Obama and Clinton had their chances, each speechified against the war, without being too tough on Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. But Clinton did toss more pointed queries at the pair than did Obama. Given the hype surrounding Petraeus's congressional testimony, Obama missed a chance to outshine Clinton as the Democrat best able to take on Bush's war. (Judge for yourself. See Clinton's performance here and Obama's here.)

But soon after Petraeus had withdrawn from the Hill, Obama and Clinton renewed the fierce competition over their antiwar bona fides. On Wednesday, Obama delivered a speech in Clinton, Iowa, in which he "unveiled" (as his campaign put it) a "comprehensive plan to turn the page in Iraq."

This plan essentially reiterates what Obama has been proposing since early this year: a phased withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. In January, he introduced legislation to start a pullout with a goal of redeploying all U.S. combat brigades by March 31, 2008. In his Clinton speech, Obama proposed the immediate withdrawal of combat troops at the pace of one or two brigades a month. That would lead to the complete removal of combat forces by the end of next year. Under the Petraeus plan, which Bush backs, U.S. troop levels are projected to be about 130,000 by next summer (the pre-surge level), with no guarantee of any decrease after that.

Though Hillary Clinton has vowed to extricate the United States from Iraq should she be elected president, she has not been as specific in proposing a date or schedule for the drawdown of troops. In July--in a speech in Des Moines--she released her Iraq plan "to end our military engagement in Iraq's civil war and immediately start bringing our troops home." One of her "first official actions" as president, she said, would be to direct the Pentagon and the National Security Council to create within the first two months of her administration a "clear, viable plan" to bring U.S. troops home. Like Obama, she called for a quick start to disengagement. Unlike Obama, she has not offered a target date for the completion of a withdrawal.

Both candidates have proposed new diplomatic and humanitarian assistance efforts in Iraq. Clinton wants to appoint a high-level U.N. representative to help broker peace among the factions there. Obama says he would call for a new constitutional convention in Iraq, convened under the auspices of the U.N., which would not adjourn until a new accord on national reconciliation is reached. (Send out for the mattresses!) But of the pair, only Obama can cite--as he did on Wednesday in Clinton, Iowa--a pace and a deadline for removing combat troops. His message could be (though he didn't say so): if elected president, I won't need to wait 60 days before coming up with a disengagement schedule.

The Obama camp is not making much of this difference. After his Clinton, Iowa, speech, two of his key foreign policy advisers--Samantha Powers and Sarah Sewell--spoke to bloggers in a conference call. I asked them how Obama's Iraq policy differed from those of other leading Democratic contenders, including a certain senator from New York. Neither raised the issue of troop withdrawals. Instead, they noted Obama's ideas for dealing with Iraqi refugees in and out of Iraq. He proposes providing financial assistance not just to the United Nations but to countries neighboring Iraq. While important, that part of Obama's speech did not come across as a candidacy-defining policy that separates him from the others.

Not to be left in any dust in the post-Petraeus phase, the Clinton campaign, about the time Obama was speaking in Iowa, zapped out an email to the media noting that Hillary Clinton had just sent a letter to Bush demanding that he "greatly accelerate the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq, and to bring so many troops home so much faster." In the letter, she did not refer to any target date for the completion of a troop drawdown. So between Clinton and Obama, the Illinois senator still has the more specific disengagement proposal.

But as Obama was speaking and Clinton was writing the president, former Senator John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat fighting to stay close to Clinton and Obama in the polls, released a statement calling for the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops "to jump-start the comprehensive political solution that will end the violence in Iraq and will allow a complete withdrawal of all combat troops within 9 to 10 months." He blasted Obama for suggesting a slower pullout that would "essentially mimic the president's own plan to withdraw 30,000 troops by next summer." He called on Obama, Clinton and other lawmakers "to use every tool available to them, including a filibuster, to force the president to change course."

While the top-three Democratic presidential wannabes each advocate removing troops from Iraq, the question (at least, politically) is whether the differences in their positions will matter to any Democratic voters. Obama's plan for Iraq--as described in his Wednesday speech--does not resonate much more than Hillary Clinton's. And Edward's end-it-in-ten-months proposal shaves off only a few months from Obama's suggested timeline. Moreover, such details may not be relevant, considering that none of these folks would be able to implement any policy until 16 months from now. By then, the ground reality in Iraq could dictate a different response.

Still, this is what candidates do: propose future policies based on present situations that could well change. And they maneuver for political position. All of this, though, favors the front-running Clinton. Once upon a time Obama opposed the Iraq war and Clinton (as did Edwards) voted to let Bush start it. This week, there was little in Obama's speech that would not--or could not--appear in a Clinton speech (though Obama's advisers might argue otherwise). Until Obama delivers a speech that Clinton cannot deliver--on Iraq or any other major topic--he will have a tough time portraying himself as a necessary alternative to the leader of the pack.

The war, no doubt, is the issue Democratic voters care most about. And Washington Democrats are about to enter into another difficult period, during which they will have to figure out how to respond to Bush and Petraeus, as additional funding for the war comes up for a vote in the Democratically-controlled Congress. While that occurs, Obama and Edwards each will face a challenge of his own: convincing Democratic voters that his ideas about what to do next in Iraq set him apart from the front-runner and render him a better pick.


CHECK OUT David Corn's recent interview with the anticorruption chief of the Iraqi government who was forced out of his job by Prime Minister Maliki and who claims the Maliki regime is so corrupt it ought to be abolished. Click here.

OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Dispatch from War-Torn Baltimore

I live in Baltimore, Maryland.

At the moment, that is slightly more dangerous than being an American soldier in Afghanistan.

In Afganhistan, just over eighty US soldiers have been killed so far this year. In Baltimore, we're up to 215 murders in 2007.

Mostly though, no one pays it any mind. No mucky-muck politicians from nearby Washington, DC (45 minutes away) don flak jackets for well-publicized tours of our dangerous streets. No presidential candidates bemoan the casualties in emotional speeches. No national experts are dispatched with a hue and cry of horror at the crisis to assess its origins and offer solutions. We don't even get a fancy name for the wars waged on our streets, like "Operation Enduring Freedom."

Why is that?

Oh, yeah! That's because it's mostly just black kids killing each other here.

Even locally the complacency here is astounding. Are city pols marshaling everything they've got behind efforts to end the violence? Are citizens of Baltimore demanding new leadership to tackle this problem from all angles?

Apparently not. This week our sitting democratic mayor and city council president both won the primaries--and in a town that is 80 percent registered Democrats and hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1963 that's tantamount to victory. A mere 28 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls.

Given the crisis in Baltimore's schools (where only 34 percent of students graduate) and the casualties in our streets--both massively complex problems that Baltimore shares with a slew of aging rust-belt cities across the country, including Detroit whose higher murder rate bumps us down to second in the nation--it was somewhat disheartening to discover today that the first order of business for Baltimore's victorious candidates was to vote in a handsome tax break for a new Legg Mason building.

But hey, that's business-as-usual in B'more, where marginally competent local pols will continue bumbling along in their feeble efforts to stanch the bloodshed in our apparently covert campaign, Operation Enduring Violence.

Soldiers Who Challenged War Spin Die in Iraq

Less than a month ago, on August 19, 2007, The New York Times published a letter from seven U.S. soldiers who wrote the newspaper as they were finishing a 15-month deployment in Iraq.

The letter contradicted claims about the supposedly improving character of the occupation that was already being circulated by General David Petraeus and his aides in anticipation of the U.S. commander in Iraq's testimony this week to Congress.

No, wrote the soldiers, they were not greeted in Iraq as the "liberators" Vice President Dick Cheney imagined four years ago. Rather, they said, they had came to recognize their presence as that of "an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome."

No, wrote the soldiers, the occupying force was not winning the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq. And to believe that this might be possible, they suggested, was "far-fetched."

No, wrote the infantrymen and noncommissioned officers of the 82nd Airborne Division, they did not believe the hype about how the war had turned a corner and was now going better.

"(We) are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day," confided Buddhika Jayamaha, an Army specialist; Wesley D. Smith, a sergeant; Jeremy Roebuck, a sergeant; Omar Mora, a sergeant; Edward Sandmeier, a sergeant; Yance T. Gray, a staff sergeant; and Jeremy A. Murphy, a staff sergeant.

The letter from the soldiers offered an honest, spin-free account of what is really happening in Iraq, straight from men serving in the thick of the fight. And it called into question virtually every statement that Petraeus would make to Congress.

So there was agonizing irony in the news reports that, while Patraeus was patrolling the safe corridors of official power in Washington, two of the truth-telling soldiers had been killed when a cargo truck in which they were riding crashed in Baghdad.

According to press accounts from Iraq, Staff Sergeant Gray, aged 26, and Sergeant Mora, aged 28, died less than a month after the publication of the letter that said the United States had "failed on every promise" made with regard to the occupation.

Their deaths follow the earlier wounding of another of the seven soldiers, Staff Sergeant Murray, who was shot in the head during the period when the letter was being prepared. Murray is expected to survive.

At a time when the sloganeering pundits of talk-radio and rant-television attack critics of Petraeus for daring to challenge the general's politically-convenient account of circumstances on the ground in Iraq, the letter from Gray, Mora and their comrades delivers the most powerful critique of the commander's claims.

Titled "The War as We Saw It," the letter reads:

Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the ''battle space'' remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers' expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear. (In the course of writing this article, this fact became all too clear: one of us, Staff Sergeant Murphy, an Army Ranger and reconnaissance team leader, was shot in the head during a ''time-sensitive target acquisition mission'' on Aug. 12; he is expected to survive and is being flown to a military hospital in the United States.) While we have the will and the resources to fight in this context, we are effectively hamstrung because realities on the ground require measures we will always refuse -- namely, the widespread use of lethal and brutal force.

Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.

Coupling our military strategy to an insistence that the Iraqis meet political benchmarks for reconciliation is also unhelpful. The morass in the government has fueled impatience and confusion while providing no semblance of security to average Iraqis. Leaders are far from arriving at a lasting political settlement. This should not be surprising, since a lasting political solution will not be possible while the military situation remains in constant flux.

The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force (then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks losing it all. Washington's insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made -- de-Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of government -- places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict -- as we do now -- will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. ''Lucky'' Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, ''We need security, not free food.''

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are -- an army of occupation -- and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.

We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.

Staff Sergeant Yance Gray and Sergeant Omar Mora will not make it home alive from the deployment they thought they were finishing when they wrote the Times. But they have, indeed, seen their mission through.

Members of the U.S. Armed Forces swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic (and to) bear true faith and allegiance to the same..."

By seeking to reveal the truth about the disastrous war in Iraq, Gray, Mora and their comrades bore true faith and allegiance to the Constitution that they had sworn to defend. The soldiers died with their honor intact, and their country has lost a pair of honest American heroes.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Sherrod Brown Pledge

With nine million children uninsured in the US, and George Bush preparing to veto a bipartisan effort to cover four to five million of them, it's clear how far we are from a universal health care system that would benefit the roughly 50 million uninsured Americans, the tens of millions of underinsured, and the millions of "fully insured" who get the shaft when the time comes for Big Insurance to come through for them.

With that in mind, it was great to see Michael Moore call on the presidential candidates to Take the Sherrod Brown Pledge. Ten years ago, Moore writes, Brown "pledged not to accept his free government health care until everyone in the United States had the same luxury. (He's still waiting.)"

To the best of my knowledge, no presidential candidate has taken Moore up on this challenge. You can contact their campaigns about the Pledge here and also suggest that the candidates lend their support to HR-676 co-authored by presidential candidate, Representative Dennis Kucinich (who might not be taking the Pledge himself but has certainly been working for years for a real, single-payer system). HR-676 would create a single-payer healthcare system by expanding Medicare to every resident. (A system favored by a majority of Americans even if it would require higher taxes.)

It's all well and good that we're getting closer to January 20, 2009, but this administration's mean-spirited war against our kids reveals, yet again, why it needs to be corralled by an opposition with steely backbones.

Picking a New AG

This email from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just hit my inbox: "This Nation Needs A New Attorney General, And It Can't Afford To Wait."

The subhead below read: "Democrats Who Asked For New Leadership Will Soon Have The Opportunity To Expeditiously Confirm A New Attorney General."

In other words, get ready for an announcement--soon--of a new Attorney General.

The rumor mill in Washington says the frontrunner is Ted Olson, the former Bush Administration solicitor general who argued Bush v. Gore.

Back in the 1990s, he helped the American Spectator magazine run its notorious "Arkansas Project," which heaped mounds of dirt, much of it later proven untrue, at the Clintons. Democrats tried to raise the issue at Olson's solicitor general confirmation hearing, but the investigation was stymied by then-Chairman Orrin Hatch, another rumored Attorney General candidate.

"I have become concerned that Mr. Olson has not shown a willingness or ability to be sufficiently candid and forthcoming with the Senate," current Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said in 2001. The Judiciary Committee deadlocked on whether to confirm Olson, by a vote to 9-9, and eventually he was narrowly confirmed by the full Senate, 51-47. Democrats Ben Nelson and Zell Miller (who later left the party) were the only ones to vote aye.

If Olson is selected as AG, will his background as a conservative operative and Bush partisan remain an issue? At least some Democrats think so.

Said Senator Chuck Schmer this week: "Clearly if you made a list of consensus nominees, Olson wouldn't appear on that list."