Sure, we’re just passing the fifth anniversary of the moment when, on March 19, 2003, as cruise missiles were heading for Baghdad, George W. Bush told the American people:
“My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger…. My fellow citizens, the dangers to our country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail.”
But that’s no reason not to write the first sixth-anniversary-of-the-Iraq-War article. This piece is penned in the spirit of Senator John McCain’s recent request that Americans not obsess about the origins of the Iraq War, but look forward. “On the issue of my differences with Senator Obama on Iraq,” he typically said, “I want to make it very clear: This is not about decisions that were made in the past. This is about decisions that a president will have to make about the future in Iraq.”
If the future, not the past, is the mantra, then let me ask you a future-oriented question: What’s wrong with these sentences?
On March 19, 2009, the date of the sixth anniversary of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, as surely as the sun rises in the East I’ll be sitting here and we will still have many tens of thousands of troops, a string of major bases, and massive air power in that country. In the intervening year, more Americans and many more Iraqis will have been wounded or killed; more chaos and conflict will have ensued; many more bombs will have been dropped, missiles launched, and suicide bombs exploded. Iraq will still be a hell on Earth.
Prediction is a risky business. Otherwise I’d now be commuting via jet pack through spire cities (as the futuristic articles of my youth so regularly predicted). If you were to punch holes in the above sentences, you would certainly note that it’s risky for a man of 63 years to suggest that he’ll be sitting anywhere on March 19, 2009. Unfortunately, when it comes to the American position in Iraq, short of an act of God, the sixth anniversary of George Bush’s war of choice is going to dawn much like the fifth one.
As a start, you can write off the next ten months, right up to January 20, 2009, inauguration day for the next President. True, last fall Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was considering bringing American troop strength in Iraq down to 100,000 by the end of George Bush’s second term. However, that was, as they evidently love to say in Washington, just a “best-case scenario.” Since then, the Administration has signaled an end-of-July drawdown “pause” of unknown duration after American troop strength, now at 157,000, hits about 142,000.
The President is clearly dragging his feet on removing even modest numbers of soldiers. As he leaves office, it seems likely that there will be at least 130,000 US troops in the country, about the same as there were before, in February 2007, his surge strategy kicked in. In addition, in the past year, US airpower has “surged” in Iraq–and continues to do so–while US mega-bases in that country continue to be built up. There are no evident plans to reverse either of these developments by January 20, 2009. No presidential candidate is even discussing them.
Any official “best case” scenario for drawdowns assumes, by the way, that the version of Iraq created during the surge months–at best, an unstable combination of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, and American plans and desires–remains in place and that Iraqi carnage stays off the front pages of American papers. This is anything but a given, as British journalist Patrick Cockburn reported recently in a piece headlined, “Why Iraq Could Blow Up in John McCain’s Face.” Indeed it could.
If Senator McCain were elected President, the American position in Iraq on March 19, 2009, will certainly be as described above–and, if he has anything to say about it, for many anniversaries thereafter. But when it comes to the sixth anniversary, the truth is that it probably doesn’t matter much who is elected President in November.
Take Hillary Clinton. She’s said that she’ll task the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and her National Security Council with having a plan for (partial) withdrawal in place within sixty days of coming into office. That means March 21, two days after the sixth anniversary.
Barack Obama has promised to remove US “combat” troops at a pace of one to two brigades per month over a sixteen-month period. So it’s possible that troop levels could drop, but only marginally before March 19, 2009, in an Obama presidency.
In addition, the stated plans of both Democratic candidates might not turn out to be their actual plans. Note the comments of Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Powers, who resigned after calling Clinton a “monster” in an interview with The Scotsman during a book tour. Less noted were her comments in a BBC interview on her candidate’s Iraq withdrawal policy. “He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a US Senator,” Powers said and then she referred to Obama’s plan as nothing more than a–you guessed it–“best-case scenario.”
Similarly, a Clinton sometime-advisor, retired General Jack Keane, also one of the authors of President Bush’s surge strategy, told the New York Sun that, in the Oval Office, “he is convinced [Hillary Clinton] would hold off on authorizing a large-scale immediate withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq.” And Clinton herself has certainly hinted at a similar willingness to reconsider her policy promises in the light of an Oval Office morning.
So, barring an Iraqi surprise, the next year in that country may be nothing but a wash (and the lubricant is likely to be blood). Best-case scenario, we’re talking about a holding action on the road to nowhere.
The Children of War
In more human terms: imagine that a child born on March 19, 2003, just as Baghdad was being shock-and-awed, will be the right age to enter first grade when the sixth anniversary of Bush’s war hits. He or she will have gone from babbling to talking, crawling to walking, and may be beginning to read and write. Of course, an Iraqi child born on that day, who managed to live to see his or her sixth birthday, might be among the 2 million-plus Iraqis in exile in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East, or among the perhaps 2 million internal refugees driven from their homes in recent years and possibly not in school at all.
For those children, the real inheritors of the Bush war era, the Iraq War has essentially been the equivalent of an open-ended prison sentence with little hope of parole; for some Americans and many Iraqis, including children, it remains a death sentence without hope of pardon. All this for a country which, even by Bush standards, never presented the slightest national security threat to the United States of America. Recently, an “exhaustive, “Pentagon-sponsored study of 600,000 captured Iraqi documents confirmed, yet again, that there were no operational links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda.
With those children in mind, here’s what’s so depressing: in mainstream Washington, hardly anyone has taken a step outside the box of conventional, inside-the-Beltway thinking about Iraq, which is why it’s possible to imagine March 19, 2009, with some confidence. For them, the Washington consensus, such as it is, is the only acceptable one and the disagreements within it, the only ones worth having. And here are its eight fundamentals:
• A belief that effective US power must be based on the threat of, or use of, dominant force, and so must centrally involve the US military.
• A belief that all answers are to be found in Washington among the serried ranks of officials, advisors, former officials, pundits, think-tank operators and other movers and shakers, who have been tested over the years and found never to have a surprise in them. Most of them are notable mainly for having been wrong so often. This is called “experience.”
• A belief that policy critics outside Washington and its consensus are gadflies, never worth seriously consulting on anything.
• A belief that the American people, though endlessly praised in political campaigns, are know-nothings when it comes to the supposedly arcane science of foreign policy, and so would not be worth consulting on “national security” matters or issues involving the sacred “national interest,” which is, in any case, the property of Washington. Like Iraqis and Afghans, Americans need good (or even not so good) shepherds in the national capital to answer that middle-of-the-night ringing phone and rescue them from impending harm. (The foolishness of Americans can be measured by opinion polls which by 2005 indicated that a majority of them had decided all American troops should be brought home from Iraq at a reasonable speed and the United States should not have permanent military bases in that country.)
• A belief that no other countries (or individuals elsewhere) have anything significant or original to offer when it comes to solving problems like that of Iraq (unless they agree with us). They are to be ignored, insists the Bush Administration, or, say leading Democrats, “talked to” and essentially corralled into signing onto, and carrying out, the solutions we consider reasonable.
• A belief that local peoples are incapable of solving their own problems without the intercession of, or the guiding hand (or Hellfire missile) of, Washington, which means, of course, of the US military.
• A belief that the United States–whatever the problem–is an essential part of the solution, not of the problem itself.
• And finally, a belief (however unspoken) that the lives of those children of George Bush’s war, already of an age to be given their first lessons in global “realism,” don’t truly matter, not when the Great Game of geopolitics is at stake.
Of course, the most recent Washington solution, involving the endless military occupation of alien lands, can “solve” nothing. The possibility of genuine improvement in Iraq under the ministrations of the US military are probably nil. And yet, because the only solutions entertained are variations of the above, little better lurks in our future.
Who would want to speculate on just how old those children of March 19, 2003, will actually be before the Iraq War is ended? So here’s my next question: What’s wrong with this sentence?
On March 19, 2010, the seventh anniversary of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, as surely as the sun rises in the East I’ll be sitting here and we will still have…