The other day, as we reached the first anniversary of the President’s announcement of his “surge” strategy in Iraq, I found myself thinking about the earliest paid book-editing work I ever did. An editor at a San Francisco textbook publisher hired me to “doctor” god-awful texts. Each of these “books” was not only in a woeful state of disrepair, but essentially DOA. I was nonetheless supposed to do a lively rewrite of the mess, after which another technician simplified the language to “grade level,” and a designer provided a flashy layout. Zap! Pow! Kebang!
Back then, in the early 1970s, an image of what I was doing formed in my mind–and suddenly came back to me this week. I used to describe it this way:
Our little band of technicians would be ushered into a room at the publisher’s in which there would be nothing but a gurney with a corpse on it in a state of advanced decomposition. The publisher’s representative would then issue a simple request: Make it look like it can get up and walk away.
And the truth was, that corpse of a book would be almost lifelike when we were done with it, but one thing was guaranteed: it would never actually get up and walk away.
That was a minor matter of bad books that no one wanted to call by their rightful name. But the image came to mind again more than three decades later because it’s hard not to think of America’s Iraq in similar terms. Only this week, Abdul Qadir, the Iraqi defense minister, announced that “his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq’s borders from external threat until at least 2018.” Pentagon officials, reported Thom Shanker of the New York Times, expressed no surprise at these dismal post-surge projections.
According to this guesstimate, the US military occupation of Iraq won’t end for, minimally, another ten years, something President Bush confirmed on his recent Mideast jaunt, saying that the U.S. stay “could easily be” another decade or more.
Folks, our media may be filled with discussions about just how “successful” the President’s surge plan has been, but really, Iraq is the corpse in the room.
“Success” as a Mantra
Last January, the President called in his technicians, Gen. David Petraeus, surge commander in Iraq, and new US ambassador to that country Ryan Crocker. Think of them as “the undertakers,” since, applying their skills, they’ve managed to give that Iraqi corpse the faint glow of life. The President asked for an Iraq that would look like it could get up and walk away–and the last year of “success,” widely trumpeted in the media, has been the result. But just think about what that defense minister promised: by 2018, the country will–supposedly–be able to control its own borders, one of the more basic acts of a sovereign state. That, by itself, tells you much of what you need to be know.
In order to achieve an image of lifelike quiescence in Iraq, the general and ambassador did have to give up the ghost on a number of previous Bush Administration passions. Rebellious al-Anbar Province was essentially turned over to members of the community (many of whom had, even according to the Department of Defense, been fighting Americans until recently). They were then armed and paid by the US not to make too much trouble. In the Iraqi capital, the surging American military looked the other way as, in the first half of 2007, the Shiite “cleansing” of mixed Baghdad neighborhoods reached new heights, transforming it into a largely Shiite city. This may have been the real “surge” and, if you look at new maps of the ethnic makeup of the capital, you can see the startling results–from which a certain quiescence followed. Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, longtime opponent of the Bush Administration, called a “truce” and went about purging and reorganizing his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army. In exchange, the US gave up, at least temporarily, its goal of wresting control of some of those neighborhoods from the Sadrists.
The Bush Administration has also reportedly given up, in large part, on its highly touted “benchmarks” for the Iraqis, part of political “reconciliation” (once described as the key to the success of the surge strategy). They have been dumped for so-called Iraqi solutions. Add in those almost 30,000 troops in Baghdad and environs and indeed Iraq has a quieter look– especially in the United States, where Iraqi news has largely disappeared from front pages just as presidential campaign 2008 heats up.
The surge was always a gamble for time, a pacification program directed at the “home front” as well as Iraq. And if this is what you mean by “success,” Bush has indeed succeeded admirably.
Another year has now passed in a country that we plunged into an unimaginable charnel-house state. Whether civilian dead between the invasion of 2003 and mid-2006 (before the worst year of civil-war level violence even hit) was in the 600,000 range as a study in the British medical journal, The Lancet reported or 150,000, as a recent World Health Organization study suggests, whether two million or 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, whether electricity blackouts and water shortages have marginally increased or decreased, whether fields of opium poppies are spreading across the country’s agricultural lands or still relatively localized, Iraq is a continuing disaster zone on a scale hard to match in recent memory.
In his year-plus of free time, Bush has begun negotiations with Iraq’s inside-the-Green-Zone government to cement in place an endless American presence. In the process, he may create a sense of permanency that no future president will prove capable of tampering with–not without being known as the man (or woman) who “lost” Iraq. Forget the Republican presidential candidates–Sen. John McCain, for instance, has said that he doesn’t care if the US is in Iraq for the next hundred years–and think about the leading Democratic candidates with their elongated “withdrawal” plans. Barack Obama is for guaranteeing a sixteen-month withdrawal schedule just for US “combat troops,” only perhaps half of American forces in the country. Hillary Clinton’s plan is no more promising.
As Michael Hirsh of Newsweek put the matter recently, while discussing the President’s Middle East trip: “Far away in the Persian Gulf, Bush is creating facts on the ground that the next president may not be able to ignore.” (Of course, this assumes that the Iraqis will comply.)
Here, then, would be another piece of Bush “success.” Those of us old enough have already lived through this scenario once with “Lyndon Johnson’s war” in Vietnam, so how does “Barack Obama’s war” sound? Then, former Bush Administration officials, Republicans, neocons and an array of pundits will turn on those uncelebratory Democrats who managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of “success,” if not victory. Wait for it.
Victory Laps and Other Celebrations
But folks, let’s face it, despite the cosmetic acts of the President and his undertakers, America’s Iraq is still a corpse. And yet, in this “post-surge” moment, everybody is arguing over just how “successful” the surge has been. The Democrats insist that the plan’s “success” is limited, because its main goal, “political reconciliation,” has not been reached. Republicans, assorted neocons, and some in the Administration are already doing modest victory dances. The newest New York Times columnist, William Kristol, just last week chided the Democrats in his typical way: “It’s apparently impermissible for leading Democrats to acknowledge–let alone celebrate–progress in Iraq.”
Let the celebrations begin! In the White House, anyway. After all, Iraq news is now regularly framed by this ongoing dispute about how much surge and post-surge success has happened, about how much to celebrate–another sign of success for the President. No wonder, as Michael Abramowitz of the Washington Post put it, Bush’s meeting in Kuwait with Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, as well as his comments to a rally of 3,000 hoo-ahing US troops, “had the air of a victory lap for a president whose decision to raise the troop levels in Iraq last year was questioned not only by Democrats but also by many Republicans and even generals at the Pentagon.”
But folks, George W. Bush can lap the Middle East, the planet, the solar system and America’s Iraq is still never going to get up and walk away. Not even in 2018 or 2028. Don’t forget, it’s a corpse.
In the meantime, the military in Iraq is preparing for something other than a simple victory lap, just in case the President’s surge luck doesn’t quite extend to 2009. In fact, General Petraeus and the rest of the US military are faced with a relatively simple calculus for their exhausted, overstretched, overused forces: present military manpower levels there are unsustainable. Drawdowns are a must and “successful” Iraq, already experiencing signs of another uptick in violence and death, is likely to need a dose of something else soon, if that faint glow of life is to be sustained.
One candidate, as American troop levels drop, is air power. In Iraq, according to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the use of air power took a striking leap forward in 2007. The number of Close Air Support/Precision Strikes–sorties that used a major munition–in Iraq went up five-fold between 2006 and 2007, from 229 to 1,119 or, on average, from 19 per month to 102 per month. 2008 started with a literal bang, 40,000 pounds of explosives were dropped in ten minutes on thirty-eight targets in a Sunni farming area on “the outskirts” of Baghdad. This was probably the largest display of air power since the 2003 invasion and, as a harbinger of things to come, guaranteed to drive up the number of civilian dead. This is undoubtedly a taste of what “success” means in 2008-2009.
Dancing on a Corpse
The whole discussion of, and argument about, “success” in Iraq is, in fact, obscene. Given what has already happened to that country–and will continue to happen as long as the US remains an occupying power there–the very category of “success” is an obscenity. If violence actually does stay down there, that may be a modest godsend for Iraqis, but it can hardly be considered a sign of American “success.”
Every now and then, history comes in handy. When the neocons and their allied pundits were feeling triumphant, they touted Bush’s America as the planet’s new Rome. That talk evaporated once Iraq went into full-scale insurgency mode, but perhaps Rome does remain a touchstone of a sort.
What comes to mind is the Roman historian Tacitus’ description of the Roman way of war which went, in part, like this:
“They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”
Folks, it’s obscene. We’re doing victory laps around, and dancing upon, a corpse.