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The Final Battle

Iraq at Home (Part 2): Realizing the New 3rd Rail of American Politics

“Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq.”House Concurrent Resolution 63 (2/10/07)

“You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”John Kerry (11/1/ 2006)

The most crucial factor – in terms of the domestic political battle over Iraq policy – is neither geopolitical nor about precedent and signaling (see the background to this article). The Republicans have owned the concept in recent years and have invoked it time after time in the debates in the House this week; Democrats are trying to wrest it away. It defines the parameters of U.S. policy in Iraq and both parties are grappling to invoke it with great fervor. It’s the first half of H Con Res 63 (stated above): support for our troops.

Literally, speech after speech after speech in Congress the past three days has centered on this concept. Democrats have begun every statement about Iraq along the lines of “I firmly support our troops” before making a segue to an appeal for reason, sometimes citing a concern for preventing the future loss of troops’ lives to reinforce this assertion. In a realm of dodged questions and shifty statements, it’s the new social security, the sole inviolable third rail of American politics. Just ask John Kerry, who found out about the danger of crossing this fine line in November 2006.

Across the aisle, Republicans claim that supporting the resolution undermines our faith in the troops and the job they’re doing. It’s inconsistent to oppose the surge and support the troops in the field, they say. Hearing of the debate back home, morale among troops in the field will be undermined (in truth, this is an unfortunate facet of America’s political system that makes the sustained, unilateral occupation of a country increasingly difficult for a democratic country). In the face of increasing radicalization and violence on the ground, endless months of waiting for Iraqis to “stand up,” and an increasing realization that victory doesn’t mean winning on the battlefield, the last bastion of argument in favor of the war in Iraq is support for the troops. As long as the GOP can link its policies to support for the troops the party ensures that the American people will not turn against them. Democrats are trying to disentangle the two.

The National Narrative
Although they differ as to the policy implications, supporting the troops is perhaps the only thing that the parties squaring off in Congress can agree upon. They do so solely because they know it carries the most weight with the American people. In fact, it cuts deeper than the current political landscape, past the flags waving on the bottom of the screen on MSNBC and FOX News in 2003 to America’s national narrative, which we are raised with and which embraces the sacrifice of our forefathers storming the beaches of Normandy, winning two world wars and the Cold War so that America, guided by liberty and democracy, could become the world’s guiding light and sole superpower. The sacrifice of our troops was integral to all of these, and it’s celebrated in pop culture (Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers), promulgated by our grandfathers, and complementary to our sense of pride and strength. As the amalgamation of many cultures and peoples, the one element shared by all Americans is the belief in this national narrative, which is inherently constructed upon the role of American soldiers.

Moreover, how could one have a friend, brother, sister, father or a mother in the U.S. military and yet oppose the war? Soldiers display a faith in their superiors that is central to the functioning of a hierarchical organization; how then, can you tell them that you don’t believe in the cause for which they are prepared to die? We can’t, of course, and we don’t. Many times it’s far from being so explicit, too; instead of consciously going through this thought process – and faced with a complex, fluid and divisive situation – people eagerly seek out reasons that comport with arguments supportive of their friends and family. Regardless of political ideology, people are likely to gravitate towards the policy consistent with their social relations. It’s the “us” versus “them,” it’s Palestinians versus Israelis, it’s Indians versus Kashmiris. This is a human condition, and is found in all nations.

Thus, opposing the troops would be akin to opposing the national narrative and repudiating our ties among each other. The country has been through this process before. After Vietnam the country went through the same painful process, and many people did turn against the troops, spitting at them and leaving them to beg on the streets after returning home.

We cannot make the same mistake this time. The troops are not to blame. Clearly, opposing the troops isn’t the point, and can’t be. But when support for the troops is linked inseparably to failed policies, how do we separate them without violating our bond with our brothers and sisters?

A Painful Hangover
Doing so requires a national catharsis. Many find it inconvenient now, but on March 29th, 2003 over 70% of America supported the invasion; the figure jumped to 83% when the troops were mentioned (Gallup Poll “U.S. at War with Iraq 2). Compared with the close to 60% who now think the war was a mistake (Gallup Poll “February Wave 1”), resolving this massive shift involves overcoming considerable guilt. We feel shame toward the families of those who’ve died serving in Iraq and to the people of Iraq. We feel embarrassment at having to admit that we were wrong to the original opponents of the war in “old” Europe. Clear-consciences reward those who opposed the war for the right reasons from the start.

It requires absolving ourselves from a process (mobilization for the Iraq war) in which we had only implicit involvement. Catharsis will be painful and involve redirecting blame to political leaders (read President Bush and GOP members unable to scatter in time), under whose leadership the nation has been exploited. It should also involve the government contractors (Halliburton, Blackwater, AEGIS) who made billions in profits while U.S. soldiers had to choose between placing their one bullet proof plate on their chest or back and crucial infrastructure projects went under-funded. Probes into government contracts awarded without competition to private military contractors – along with greater oversight in the future – are in order.

There are clear signs that this is beginning to happen, after the Democratic takeover of Congress, rock-bottom poll numbers for the President and the welcome return of vociferous debate in Congress (and fiery defense of Democrats’ patriotism by Tim Ryan, D-OH), sorely absent in recent years. New members of the legislature (Democrat and Republican) were not on the record supporting the Iraq war in ’03 and can more easily denigrate it as the mistakes of the previous Congress. And we should not feel bad about this: the manipulation of social bonds by political leaders is perhaps the most heinous tactic of all.

The Final Battle
This is truly the “final battle” of the Iraq war. America’s last battle will not occur in Iraq, but the United States. It’s the battle of the national psyche to come to terms with the events of the past four years and the dreadful consequences of the Iraq war. For better or worse, the United States will not withdraw from Iraq unless the country comes to terms with this issue.

February 16, 2007 Posted by | Author: DML, Congress, Democrats, International Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Politics, The GOP, The War on Terror, United States | 4 Comments

The (ill) State of Iraq

Iraq at Home (Part 1): There’s nothing brave in writing about Iraq in February ’07. We’ll do it anyway.

In President Bush’s January State of the Union Address, he asserted – not for the first time – that the war in Iraq is indelibly linked (no pun intended) to the “war on terror.” He was right. Stop: that statement was not true before America deposed Saddam Hussein. The unfortunate reality is that this is a classic example of saying something enough that it becomes true. Hussein was a secular dictator and, according to available intelligence, had minimal contacts with al-Qaeda before the war in Iraq. Now, as the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate declares, the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

“has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat… The U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, [is] the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda…Rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position.”


In Agreement?

Presenting this evidence in February 2007 is no bold statement. The administration botched the rebuilding of Iraq, Bush’s approval ratings are at all time lows, a majority of Americans think the war was a mistake (55% in February 2006, Gallup poll “February Wave 1”); the rest is familiar by now. What needs further examination is not a tired summary of the last few years but the motives and arguments behind the raging in Congress at present about how to proceed.

Iraq in U.S. Politics
Congressional debate is back today; since this morning House Republicans and Democrats have been firing blows at each other over House Concurrent Resolution 63, the proposed non-binding” Iraq resolution, which registers disapproval but does not block funds for the President’s “surge” proposal. For those of you without time for C-Span in your busy lives, the substance of the fiery debate has been predictably familiar. It was illuminating nonetheless.

While the Democrats’ opposition was initially characterized as opposing war for the sake of peace, there is now a tinge of realism to their arguments: the war is further radicalizing large swathes of the world and billions of dollars are being spent while many domestic issues need serious attention. They appeal to the historical democratic tradition of debate and the need for open discussion of policy, especially when it’s flawed. Crucially for the Democratic shift was their minority status during the Iraq war, (despite having largely supported it in ‘03) which makes them less politically tied to its future than the GOP. The Democratic takeover of Congress also brought fresh faces into politics with the luxury of not having gone on record in support of the war in ’03. The party is better able to make a pragmatic about-face (or stand by an initial decision against it) in light of unfavorable developments.

The GOP meanwhile is torn. Some members have rebelled against President Bush and opposed the surge. Conversely, those supporting the surge (and opposing H Con Res 63) wax eloquently but their statements are threaded by several clearly identifiable arguments. One centers on the resolution being non-binding. Opponents call it “political posturing” and “empty talk” that accomplishes nothing. This is insincere. Of course the resolution is politically motivated; everything in Washington is. More importantly, both sides know that symbols matter. Sending the signal that Congress opposes the increase is designed to isolate President Bush for posterity and influence the battle for public opinion and thus policy. Counter to their public declarations, Republicans tacitly acknowledge that symbols matter when they say, correctly, that terrorists will take note of domestic discord and be emboldened. And in case you have any further doubts, when was the last time that almost 400 representatives felt compelled (and were allowed) to make speeches on the House floor?


Quick! What channel is C-Span?

Secondly, they warn that if America withdraws from Iraq the country will ignite, Iran will capitalize, and the region will be engulfed by violence. While fears of a war erupting throughout the Middle East are easily overblown, it’s true that Iraq would likely devolve further into full-scale ethnic cleansing and massive displacement and forced migration. Iran would be further emboldened with first the removal of its neighborly nemesis Saddam Hussein and the failure of the United States to create a self-sufficient Iraqi state. As in past wars (i.e. Korea 1950 – 1953), the stronger power doesn’t have to be defeated in battle to lose the war. Stalemate works just as well if you’re able to outlast the other and wining a direct military confrontation was never a requirement for victory anyway.

President Bush offers a third justification for the war that is less often asserted by GOP members of Congress. On February 15th at the American Enterprise Institute, Bush restated that fighting terrorists in Iraq means that the United States won’t have to fight them at home. This is an attractive argument: a would-be suicide bomber from Saudi Arabia or Yemen finds it far easier to detonate him or herself in Baghdad than Boston.

Yet it’s common sense that the longer that the “war on terror” goes on – and it could be infinite – the more likely it is to happen. In the long run, terrorist attacks will occur regardless of whether or not America is fighting terrorists in Iraq. Both sides use this in support: Democrats ponder the question, “If we’re going to be attacked either way, why spend the blood and treasure in Iraq?” Republicans say that since the terrorists won’t let up if we withdraw, we need to take the battle to them.

An Accusation, Not an Argument
The GOP then asks, disingenuously, what the Democrats strategy is for Iraq. “If you oppose President Bush’s plan, why not propose your own? What is your plan?” they ask while asserting that the Democrats have none. These Republican critiques are accurate; the Democrats have no miracle strategy.

Before rushing to herald the Republican strategists, however, we should recognize that they’re simply making the best of a politically tenuous position, one that is likely to become increasingly unstable with time. And Republicans who are politically unable to distance themselves from their support for the war will – if the Democrats eventually withdraw the United States from Iraq – forever claim that it didn’t have to fail. They’ll be relieved of forging a solution and insist to the last that it could have been won, crowing that the Democrats “lost Iraq.”

The immensely depressing reality, not only for the Democratic Party but for the whole country, is that America is so deep into the war in Iraq that no good option now exists. In the following article I make the case that the country is beginning to come to terms with this and that there is one last political issue, the resolution of which will determine the course of American policy in Iraq.

February 16, 2007 Posted by | Author: DML, Democrats, Dissent, International Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Politics, The GOP, The War on Terror, United States | Leave a comment