There is a bridge over a very high gorge. At the bottom of the gorge, there are jagged rocks. Many times each day, people fall from the bridge, dying a horrible death on the rocks below.
Death after death after death, all because of the rocks. If only the gorge were filled with pillows and feathers and mattresses! All these senseless deaths could be prevented, if only the rocks were not rocks.
A rock, a wreck, Iraq.
Read a few of the rightwing blogs. They enrage us with stories of terrorist atrocities. If only those terrorists weren't so evil... If only those rocks weren't so jagged.
Ask them why we are on the bridge, and they will ask why you aren't condemning those horrible jagged rocks. Ask them if perhaps we should try to prevent people from falling off the bridge, and they will insist that you are an enemy of pillows, feathers, and mattresses. If we weren't on the bridge, they say, the rocks would be climbing out of the gorge, hiding under our bedsheets at night, pelting us in our own showers every morning.
Are we safe? Are we all OK, now that Iraq is destroyed? There are no rocks pouring out of the showerhead, therefore, invading Iraq was the right thing to do. How many Americans have died in terrorist attacks since Saddam was overthrown? None! (Remember, it's no fair counting those who have been murdered by IEDs in Iraq. For some reason, they don't count.) The important point, according to the neocons, is that there has been no major terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11.
Nearly five years have passed. Do we owe our safety to the bold actions taken by the neocons?
Let's consider some numbers. How many years passed after the first Trade Center attack, before the terrorists again struck on U.S. soil?
Clinton was villified by conservatives for his supposedly inadequate response to the 1993 attack on the Trade Center... and more than eight years passed before the next attack in the U.S. And that attack, of course, did not occur under Clinton, but under Bush, who had failed to act on repeated warnings of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, such as those predicted by the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security... or, more specifically, those foreshadowed by the FBI briefing from August 6, 2001, entitled "Bin Laden determined to strike in US."
Thus, even if we were to accept the (false) premise that Clinton did nothing to prevent more attacks, we would still be left with the conclusion that it will be another three years before the neocon response can claim to be equally effective.
But the frequency of attacks on American soil does not tell the whole story. Let's consider some more meaningful numbers: deaths.
The number of Americans killed in Iraq is rapidly approaching the number of Americans killed on 9/11. Thousands of Americans have died in a useless, ill-conceived misadventure, and in the process, they have managed to make one of the most miserable countries on Earth even more miserable.
Numbers, dammit. Numbers. It is about numbers.
The conservative mythology describes liberals as "bleeding hearts." Pathetic, touchy-feely, goody-two-shoes, liberals whine about problems... but conservatives are the ones who solve problems. Conservatives are supposed to be smart, goal-oriented, and analytical.
To realize that this is indeed a myth, one need only look at Iraq. By any quantifiable measure, Iraq is a disaster. Thousands of Americans are dead. Our so-called "coalition partners" are deserting us. Tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead... and that is a conservative estimate. America's deficit is the largest in the nation's history.
If we cannot claim success on the basis of any quantifiable measure, perhaps we should discard measurements in favor of the liberal's "touchy-feely" approach. How do we fare when we consider the intangibles? The things that cannot be measured so easily?
Even by this standard, Iraq is a disaster. Has Abu Ghraib enhanced American prestige? Has the massacre at Haditha reassured the Middle East that Americans are honorable? Conservatives love to talk about terrorist atrocities. For the hundredth time: yes, we are better than the terrorists. But why are we measuring ourselves against the standard set by thugs and murderers? What happens when we measure our actions against our own values? Are Abu Ghraib and Haditha anomolies? In the broader context of American history, certainly they are. But what about the context of this administration? Consider the exchange between Gen. Peter Pace and Donald Rumsfeld, in November 2005. Discussing reports that suspects had been tortured by Iraqi security forces, Pace stated that "It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene to stop it." Rumsfeld, standing beside Pace, turned and remarked that "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it." Pace replied: "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it." (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12454357/).
Think about that exchange for a moment. Having abandoned the "weapons of mass destruction" rationale for invading Iraq, the administration then claimed to be bringing democracy to the Middle East. But while it was somehow the responsibility of America to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers halfway around the world in order to implement democracy, those same soldiers did not, in Rumsfeld's view, have any responsibility to stop torture occurring in front of their very eyes. They were just supposed to "report it." Report it to whom, exactly?
Neocons are quick to point out that the Islamic fundamentalists are far, far worse. To which one can only reply: Duh. Yes, we know that are better than thugs who behead innocent civilians and bomb mosques. We also know that pillows are softer than rocks. But this is not the point. The point is, people are falling, stumbling, and slipping into the gorge for no damn reason. People are being pushed off the bridge out of blind stupidity. The problem is not what happens at the bottom of the gorge. The problem is what is happening on the bridge.
If we are failing in Iraq, what can we do? Someone once said that if you try and fail, the only thing to do is to try harder.
This is nonsense.
Presumably, if you tried at all, you tried your best; if you didn't, you're lazy and stupid. If you did try your best, and you failed, you need a new plan. You don't need to do the same thing, only more so; you need to do something different. It's fine to stay the course if you are succeeding. But if you are failing and you choose to stay the course, you're simply a fool.
Why has the Bush administration not changed course? Why have they not pursued new strategies, or different options?
And what is the electorate's excuse for not changing course?
How many dumb things does this administration have to do before the electorate realizes that "more of the same" is not a viable option? How many times do they need to hear that Brownie is doing a heck of a job? How many people does Dick Cheney have to shoot in the face? How many times does Condoleeza Rice have to acknowledge "thousands" of mistakes, only to claim a day later that she didn't really mean thousands of mistakes?
Let's consider one of those mistakes specifically: the failure to provide enough troops to pacify Iraq. We did not have enough troops to maintain order: we only had enough troops to introduce anarchy. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki wanted more troops. Colin Powell wanted more troops. Paul Bremer wanted more troops. Rumsfeld, however, had a different view, and he had no patience with the naysayers and chronic complainers. After all, "you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want." (http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/meast/12/08/rumsfeld.troops/) Planning be damned.
It is not easy to lead. Yet it is not always easy to follow, either, particularly when those leading have no clue where they are going. Diehard hawks want to pretend that the problem lies with the American public: they've gone soft. They're not willing to do that hard things that need to be done.
Wrong: people are willing to do hard things when they are clearly necessary, and they are willing to do hard things when they are told in advance that they will be difficult. But what happens when they are told that it will all be easy? When they are told that there will be little blood, little treasure, little effort involved? It will not be pretty when reality comes home to roost: When the public learns that the task they were given is, in fact, not easy, they begin to balk. They begin to rebel. They begin -- quite rightly -- to question the judgement of those who told them it would be easy.
For those of us who realized, before the war began, that it would not be the "cakewalk" we were promised, the last three years have been agonizing. It's important to remember, by the way, that they really did claim it would be a cakewalk. Writing in the Washington Post in February 2002 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A1996-2002Feb12), Ken Adelman, a former assistant to Donald Rumsfeld, stated bluntly: "I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk."
We - the realists - knew what the ideologues just couldn't grasp. We knew that people were going to be falling off the bridge.
Neocons have spent three years complaining that liberals want the U.S. to fail: that they want the bridge to collapse. Let me state the obvious here, since the neocons have established a dismal record at grasping painfully simple facts: Liberals do not want the U.S. to fail. Liberals are on the bridge with everybody else. They have been warning, over and over and over, that the bridge is dangerous... all while the neocons have were promising cakewalks and roses.
When the public's disillusions about Iraq finally began to reach critical mass, the Bush administration made a few token statements about the difficulties, and even pretended to reach out to experienced statesmen. In January 2006, Bush met with several former Secretaries of State and Defense; the meeting, however, lasted a grand total of only about 45 minutes, and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright later remarked that Bush was clearly more interested in talking than listening. An MSNBC story (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10723052/from/RS.5/) from that day included a typical Bush quote: "We're making darn good progress." Meanwhile, another headline on the very same day left that assessment open to question: "130 Iraqis, 7 U.S. soldiers killed in bombings." (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10703607/) Darn good progress.
What if we consider the broader, geopolitical implications of the war? Writing in Time magazine (3/27/2006), retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson points out a thoroughly unsettling truth: The big winner in the Iraq War? Iran. Iran, Wilkerson points out, "rid itself of its greatest threat, Saddam and his military, without firing a shot; won the Dec. 15 Iraq elections; owns the south, particularly Basra; and has felt the freedom to elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, in turn, has felt the freedom to reclaim leadership of radical Islam, leadership Osama bin Laden had claimed on 9/11."
Already, books have been written about the poor judgement of those who led us into Iraq; and many more will be written in the future, because the situation in Iraq is not going to improve anytime soon.
During the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan famously asked: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Let's resurrect that question: Who in their right mind believes that the Iraqis are better off than they were four years ago? Saddam Hussein was a brutal, murderous despot... and yet we have made Iraq an even worse place. If you disagree, the question is: by what measure has live in Iraq improved? The Kurds are better off, and that is certainly a good thing... but what about the rest of Iraq?
Those who still claim that this was the right course of action need to answer a question: Three years ago, when Bush was standing in front of the absurd "Mission Accomplished" banner, claiming that "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," is this what you believed Iraq would be like in 2006? If not, why is it like this? If the foreign policy realists who opposed this war were ignorant, why have their dire predictions come true?
Sadly, we cannot simply leave Iraq now. Or, to be more accurate, we could, but it would be immoral and disgraceful to not make an effort to fix the deadly mess we have helped to create. Fixing this disaster will be long, difficult, and painful, and we will not be able to do it without assistance from other countries. The politicians and pundits who argued in favor of this invasion have demonstrated that they do not have the wisdom or skill to repair the damage.
If you want improvement, don't worry about the rocks: worry about the bridge. Remember who told you that it would be a cakewalk. Remember who told you we'd be welcomed on this bridge. Remember it at least as long as the next election, because that is the next chance to start making this mess right.
Bruce Sharp, June 7, 2006
Many Misgivings (March 2003)
My Exasperated Unendorsement for President (May 2004)
Saigon Lesson Plan (October 2005)
Residual Talking Points (November 2005)
Starting from Zero (April 2007)
Andy? Is That You? (October 2006)