[Re-posted from earlier today]
Let me put this as baldly as I can. The US fought two long, brutal wars in its response to the atrocity of September 11, 2001. We lost both of them – revealing the biggest military machine in the history of the planet as essentially useless in advancing American objectives through war and occupation. Attempts to quash Islamist extremism through democracy were complete failures. The Taliban still has enormous sway in Afghanistan and the only way to prevent the entire Potemkin democracy from imploding is a permanent US troop presence. In Iraq, we are now confronting the very same Sunni insurgency the invasion created in 2003 – just even more murderous. The Jihadism there has only become more extreme under a democratic veneer. And in all this, the U.S. didn’t just lose the wars; it lost the moral high-ground as well. The president himself unleashed brutal torture across all theaters of war – effectively ending any moral authority the US has in international human rights.
These are difficult truths to handle. They reveal that so many brave men and women died for nothing. And so we have to construct myths or bury facts to ensure that we maintain face. But these myths and amnesia have a consequence: they only serve to encourage Washington to make exactly the same mistakes again. To protect its own self-regard, Washington’s elite is prepared to send young Americans to fight in a war they cannot win and indeed have already lost. You see the blinding myopia elsewhere: Washington’s refusal to release the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture merely proves that it cannot face the fact that some of the elite are war criminals tout simple, and that these horrific war crimes have changed America’s role in the world.
What infuriated me about the decision to re-start the Iraq War last August – by a president explicitly elected not to do any such thing – was its arrogance, its smugness, and its contempt for what this country, and especially its armed forces, went through for so many long years of quagmire and failure. Obama and his aides revealed that their commitment to realism and not to intervene in Syria could be up-ended on a dime – and a war initiated without any debate in Congress, let alone a war authorization. They actually believed they had the right to re-start the Iraq War – glibly tell us it’s no big deal – tell us about it afterwards, and then ramp up the numbers of combat forces on the ground to early Vietnam levels.
This is not just a Republican fixation. It’s a function of the hegemony reflexively sought by liberal internationalists as well. Just listen to Jon Stewart calling Samantha Power’s smug bluff last night:
It was one of Stewart’s best interviews in a long while. One telling moment comes when Stewart asks Power why, if the threat from ISIS is “existential”, the regional powers most threatened by it cannot take it on themselves. She had no answer – because there is none. The US is intervening – despite clear evidence that it can do no real good – simply to make sure that ISIS doesn’t actually take over the country and thereby make president Obama look bad. But the IS was never likely to take over Kurdistan or the Shiite areas of Iraq, without an almighty struggle. And our elevating ISIS into a global brand has only intensified its recruitment and appeal. We responded, in other words, in the worst way possible and for the worst reasons possible: without the force to alter the underlying dynamic, without a breakthrough in multi-sectarian governance in Baghdad, without the regional powers taking the lead, without any exit plan, and all to protect the president from being blamed for “losing Iraq” – even though “Iraq” was lost almost as soon as it was occupied in 2003.
My point is this: how can you behave this way after what so many service-members endured for so long? How can you simply re-start a war you were elected to end and for which you have no feasible means to achieve victory?
The reason, I fear, is that the leadership in both parties cannot help themselves when they have a big shiny military and see something they don’t like happening in the world. If they can actually decide to intervene in a civil war to suppress an insurgency they couldn’t fully defeat even with 100,000 troops in the country, without any direct threat to national security, they can do anything. Worse, our political culture asks no more of them. The Congress doesn’t want to take a stand, the public just wants beheadings-induced panic satiated by a pliant president (who is then blamed anyway), and the voices that need to be heard – the voices of those who fought and lost so much in Iraq – are largely absent.
That’s why I found this op-ed in yesterday’s NYT so refreshing. A former lieutenant general in Iraq reminds us of the facts McCain and Obama both want to deny:
The surge in Iraq did not “win” anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans’ unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today’s stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fevered patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn’t go away. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents we battled for more than eight years simply re-emerged this year as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
To go back in and try to do again with no combat troops what we could not do with 100,000 is a definition of madness brought on by pride. It is to restart the entire war all over again. It makes no sense – except as political cover. I was chatting recently with an officer who served two tours of duty in Iraq, based in Mosul. I asked him how he felt about ISIS taking over a city he had risked his life to save. And I can’t forget his response (I paraphrase): “Anyone who was over there knew right then that as soon as we left, all this shit would happen again. I’m not surprised. The grunts on the ground knew this, and saw this, but the military leadership can’t admit their own failure and the troops cannot speak out because it’s seen as an insult to those who died. And so we keep making the same fucking mistakes over and over again.”
At what point will we listen to those men and women willing to tell the ugly, painful truth about our recent past – and follow the logical conclusion? When will Washington actually admit its catastrophic errors and crimes of the last decade – and try to reform its own compulsive-interventionist habits to reflect reality rather than myth? Not yet, it appears, not yet. Washington cannot bear very much reality.
(Photo: U.S. Army soldiers of the D-CO 2/325 AIR 82nd Airborne Division during a dismounted movement to conduct early morning raids on homes in Baghdad, Iraq on April 26, 2007. The soldiers are part of the United States military surge as they try to help control the violence plagued city. By Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)