Many people (mostly Republicans) say (mostly to Democrats) that it’s wrong to “politicize” the war in Iraq. But politicizing the war is exactly what should now occur. To be precise, those who oppose the war should politicize it as much as the Bush Administration has already done. Politics is not just the activity of politicians; it is a democratic people’s chief means of making basic decisions about its future. Such decisions–whether the country’s foreign policy will be imperial or democratic, whether the constitutional system will remain intact, whether the United States stands for or against torture–are now before the electorate. In any case, it seems clear from the President’s speech at the Army War College on May 24 that no basic change in US Iraq policy is likely before November 2. On the other hand, the entire direction of American politics is at stake on that day. To point this out is not to be indifferent to the welfare of the people of Iraq. For the shape of their future will also depend chiefly on the outcome of the election.
The beginning of realism is to acknowledge that the next step in the President’s policy–his promise of “full sovereignty” to Iraq–is a cosmetic operation. The story of the war has been one of official claims or predictions dissolving upon contact with fact. Let’s see how quickly I can run through the overfamiliar list: Weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq? Not there. Iraqi ties with Al Qaeda before the war? Missing. Democracy in Iraq? Drowned in blood at Abu Ghraib. Transformation of the whole Middle East? For the worse.
The promise of “full sovereignty” is next in this series (coming along just in time to refresh the litany). But in one way it’s different. You had to wait some months for the previous mirages to dissipate, but this one is dead before arrival. It is a phrase advanced in the teeth of multiple admissions by the Administration itself, which has let it be known that the new “sovereign” will not: possess authority over either American forces or its own; be able to pass legislation; control its own news media; make decisions about the economy of the country. Neither will it enjoy the authority of the “interim constitution” recently promised by Bush but now simply forgotten. Arguably, the new group will possess less authority even than the powerless existing “governing council.” “Withdrawal of power” might be a better description than “transfer of power” for what is about to happen–except that the governing council lacked real power in the first place. As for the election promised in January, this will be as uncertain, once the US election in November is out of way, as the interim constitution turned out to be.
What is at stake on June 30 has little to do with any reality in Iraq. In all important respects, American policy will remain the same. The Coalition Provisional Authority will be renamed an “embassy.” (The President said, “Our embassy in Baghdad will have the same purpose as any other American embassy.” This is true if the comparison is to, say, the American Embassy in Chile in 1971.) Some 138,000–or more–troops will remain in the country, using, in the President’s ominous words, “measured force or overwhelming force.” The electricity, water and oil will stop and start as usual. The fighting will continue. Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis will jockey for power. The prison at Abu Ghraib will be torn down, but a new “modern maximum security prison”–America’s latest gift to Iraqi democracy–will replace it (as if a building, not the people in it, had been torturing Iraqi prisoners.)