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Residual Talking Points

A couple months ago, an acquaintance asked me to write something about the thirtieth anniversary of the communists' rise to power in Vietnam and Cambodia. The resulting article, Saigon Lesson Plan, discussed the failure of both the Right and the Left to have learned anything from Vietnam.

In the course of composing that article, I wound up with a number of observations -- or, more accurately, a number of rants -- that weren't directly relevant to the topic. A few of them are worth discussing. The discussions important for the war in Iraq are still not taking place. (Shouting matches between knee-jerk, right-wing patriotic louts and empty-headed, slogan-spouting leftists do not count as "discussion.")

In 2003, during the early stages of the war in Iraq, I wrote an essay outlining my reasons for believing that the war would prove to be a disastrous mistake. Regrettably, some two and a half years later, I can see no reason to alter that early judgement.

At that time, I was bothered by the absence of reasonable, rational dissent against a military solution: "There are thoughtful people who are opposed to this war, but it seems that the most visible are the least thoughtful."

Who is right about Iraq? Two and a half years ago, with the war barely underway, either side could say: wait and see. At this point, however, the burden of proof lies with those who claim that going to war was the correct decision. Events have followed precisely the course that I (and many others) predicted in the spring of 2003. Those who supported the decision to go to war need to explain why events have not gone as expected. Did they really understand that we would be bogged down in an ongoing guerrilla war in an unfriendly country? Did they understand that thousands of American soldiers would die, and that number of Iraqi dead would be in the tens of thousands -- and quite possibly in excess of 100,000?

What does it take to persuade the true believers that the war is not going well?

Is the war going well? Let's examine some facts. How many Americans are dying? The first year of war saw some 553 American deaths; the second year (long after the "major combat" had supposedly ended) saw another 946. As of this writing, we are roughly nine months into the third year of war; this has resulted in another 527 deaths. These numbers do not suggest that the insurgency is in its "last throes," in spite of Dick Cheney's claims to the contrary. (see http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/05/30/cheney.iraq/). A running total of American and allied casualties -- along with estimates of civilian casualties -- is online at http://icasualties.org.

But what about enemy casualties? Early on in the Afghan war, Gen. Tommy Franks declared bluntly that "we don't do body counts." It seemed like a wise decision: Body counts in Vietnam were routinely falsified, and several analysts have suggested that the focus on body counts actually encouraged soldiers to kill civilians: after all, the more dead, the better. Yet even if the body counts had been accurate, they were still completely meaningless: as Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow put it, "It was irrelevant to win all these battles because we were up against an enemy that was willing to take unlimited losses." (http://archive.salon.com/news/feature/2005/06/11/body_counts/).

In the absence of any clear way to measure progress in Iraq, however, the military has now fallen back on... I bet you can guess what is coming here... body counts.

An article from the Washington Post noted the irony:

After generally rejecting body counts as standards of success in the Iraq war, the U.S. military last week embraced them -- just as it did during the Vietnam War. As the carnage grew in Baghdad, U.S. officials produced charts showing the number of suspects killed or detained in offensives in the west.

"Lynch, the military spokesman, cited killings and detentions of 1,534 insurgents in the region. The fact that the number of insurgents killed or captured in the northern city of Tall Afar was roughly equal to advance estimates of their strength, he said, was proof that insurgents weren't simply escaping to fight another day -- and that U.S. forces were doing more than razing infrastructure. 'Zarqawi is on the ropes,' Lynch told reporters." (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9395462/)

The new focus on body counts is a reflection of the Bush administration's latest attempt to salvage the illusion of competent planning. The weapons of mass destruction were not there, but rather than admit that the entire undertaking was foolhardy, we're offered a new justification: the U.S. presence in Iraq will draw terrorists from around the world into Iraq, where they can be defeated decisively.

One might ask why we needed to put soldiers in Iraq to perform this function, when surely our soldiers in Afghanistan would have been equally acceptable as human bullseyes. And, of course, one wonders what the Iraqis think of their country's role as bait in someone else's war. We might also ask whether or not there is any historical precedent for fighting a guerrilla conflict this way: guerrillas, by their nature, do not cluster together, waiting for conventional armies to swoop down on them. Unless you can kill virtually every last enemy soldier, it is a strategy that is doomed to fail.

Call it the "Bush Approach to Pest Control." One day you see an ant in your house. If there is one ant, there must surely be more. So what do you do? You walk into your neighbor's house and pour syrup on his carpet. Waiting for the syrup to draw the ants into the open, you stand in your neighbor's home day after day, stomping insects into his rug. Setting aside the question of whether or not this is an effective way to keep ants out of your house, we might also consider the question of how much the neighbors will like your approach.

Bush's supporters continue to disavow any similarity with Vietnam. Republican Senator George Allen, for example, argues that the insurgents in Iraq have no clear-cut, unifying philosphy akin to the communist doctrines of the North Vietnamese. "The terrorists don't have anything to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq. All they care to do is disrupt." (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9032036/). Such comments demonstrate a failure to understand the nature of guerrilla warfare. Disruption does not help one govern... but the guerrillas don't need to govern. Guerrillas win by not losing; for all practical purposes, a stalement is to the guerrilla's advantage. If the Americans are not winning hearts and minds, it does not matter in the least that the insurgents aren't winning them, either. Moreover, Allen's argument is quite probably wrong anyway: the insurgents are united by a common desire: the desire to drive the infidels out of Muslim lands.

Few Americans have bothered to consider how they are perceived in the Middle East. The belief that the decision to go to war was wise is, in large measure, a matter of faith. If the United States is a good country, devoted to freedom and justice, then surely the war in Iraq represents the struggle of good against evil.

Let's assume that the United States is, indeed, a good country. What those on the Right don't understand is that this does not matter.

People do not act on the basis of what is true: they act on the basis of what they believe to be true. Perhaps American goals in Iraq are noble; true or not, the Iraqis, by and large, do not believe that our goals are noble. Why should they? As saviors, we are not credible.

Credibility, in fact, has been in short supply ever since the administration first began planning the invasion. False claims ran rampant: we heard stories of human beings fed into plastic shredders, stories of yellow cake uranium, stories of aluminum tubes, stories of how anyone who had leaked classified information to the press would be fired... so many stories, with so little truth. Even now, Bush continues to try to link Iraq with the September 11 terrorist attacks, in spite of the absence of any real link. Speaking in August, for example, he declared that "In a few weeks, our country will mark the four-year anniversary of the attacks of September the 11th, 2001. On that day, we learned that vast oceans and friendly neighbors no longer protect us from those who wish to harm our people. And since that day, we have taken the fight to the enemy... We're fighting the terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world, striking them in foreign lands before they can attack us here at home," Bush said. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9020634/)

The story of the Bush presidency is the story of two C's, discarded in favor of a third: Credibility and Competence are out, replaced by Cronyism.

Does anyone at the White House understand that competence is important? Cronyism has rum rampant at the highest levels of government. Few people seemed concerned about this until Hurricane Katrina drove home the point that effective leadership is important. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," said George, as hundreds died and tens of thousands waited in vain for something, anything, from their government.

Meanwhile, George cheerfully pledged to rebuild his pal Trent Lott's luxury beachside home, even better than it was before.

There was George, on camera in the wreckage of a great American city, a President In Action. A can-do guy, he had his shirtsleeves rolled up. Had the leader of the free world come across a cow in the middle of a breech birth, he would have been ready to plunge right in, all the way up to his elbows. Now that's leadership.

One would think that the fiasco of Katrina would have taught Bush something about the perils of cronyism. Apparently it didn't: searching for someone to replace justice Sandra Day O'connor in September, Bush turned to... one of his cronies. The crony in this case -- Harriet Miers -- was nominated for the highest court in the land despite have no judicial experience. In the end, however, her nomination was doomed not by her inexperience; it was doomed by the fact that Bush's neo-conservative patrons felt that Miers wouldn't be sufficiently neo-conservative.

As if we needed yet another layer of absurdity, the Bush administration is now worried about -- drum roll, please -- The Onion. Yes, The Onion, the marvelous satirical newspaper featuring stories such as "Showoff Pallbearer Carries Casket By Himself," and "NASA Chief Under Fire For Personal Shuttle Use." Administration officials complained on October 26 about the paper's use of the presidential seal in a section of the paper featuring parodies of Bush press statements. How odd: George W. Bush, the man destined to be enshrined in history books as "Our Smirkiest President," apparently has no sense of humor.

Ironically, an Onion article from January 2001 ("Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over'") turned out to be equal parts prophecy and comedy. After four years of Bush's mismanagment and incompetence, blogger Mark Thomas reprinted the article and added hyperlinks to genuine news stories that showed how many of the Onion's jokes had become reality. (See http://www.godlessgeeks.com/BushNightmare.htm.)

It was funny in The Onion; it's less funny as actual policy.

How will this joke end? No one will be laughing. Iraq is a mess; it is the quagmire so many observers warned of two years ago. What will Iraq be in the future? A ruined, failed state, torn by civil war? Or will it be a flowering democracy? An an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world?

For those of you who don't recognize that last phrase, that was how President Jimmy Carter described Iran in 1977, roughly one year before the Shah was overthrown, and radical Islamic militants led by Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=403)

Stability is not easy to achieve and maintain. It is certainly not easy to achieve in the Middle East. And it will certainly not be achieved by the people who brought us the current mess. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice: your place in history is assured. Congratulations: You've managed to lead us away from the horrors of peace and prosperity, and into the quagmire.

Bruce Sharp, November 1, 2005

Other articles on Iraq and the Bush administration:
Many Misgivings (March 2003)
My Exasperated Unendorsement for President (May 2004)
Saigon Lesson Plan (October 2005)
Jagged Rocks (June 2006)
Starting from Zero (April 2007)

And while we're on the subject of neo-conservatives:
Andy? Is That You? (October 2006)