Drifting through the Flames of Iraq

Eleven months ago, I wrote an essay on this blog pleading for clarity in the crucial debate about the way forward in Iraq. I called it, “Reassessing the Pottery Barn Rule” after the you-break-it-you-buy-it admonition of former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

I was frustrated by the unhelpful noise generated from both the right and the left, and the inability of American leadership to frame the alternatives, and to lay out the justifications and perils of each. I wrote:

The war in Iraq was wrong from the start. But that is old news, and each new day brings a imperative to avoid fresh mistakes. The situation is dynamic and the analysis problematic. It is time for the Pentagon, the State Department, and the United Nations to openly discuss the alternatives to a protracted guerilla war in Iraq, rather than simply allowing momentum to carry policy forward. If America does not have the moral courage and political will to engage in this kind of honest, open discussion, then perhaps it should pull up its stakes, admit defeat, take responsibility for the devastation it leaves in its wake, and refocus its energy to addressing the global consequences of its failure.

We broke it, but do we really have to own it? Do the Iraqis even want that? Perhaps they would ultimately be better off absorbing the loss and having the bull out of the china shop. This reconsideration of the Pottery Barn Rule must happen, and happen soon.

How far have we come in a year? Nowhere.

The right wing memes remain basically unchanged — those guys are amazing at staying on-message, finding simplistic clarity in the most complicated of morasses. Vice President Cheney still claims “the insurgency is in its last throes” and his rose-lensed neocon pals still see the remaking of the Middle East as a game that could go their way. The less optimistic Republican partisans argue lamely for “staying the course” to avoid looking as though America has been defeated (is there any doubt?) and to “support the troops” (what, by keeping them in harm’s way?). But the argument with genuine pathos is that withdrawl “will mean that our troops have died for nothing.” I am overwhelmed by sadness I feel each time I hear this uttered. On the one hand, the predicate is as true as can be: many people, Iraqis, Americans, and others have died for nothing. Or worse than nothing: for lies and policy deceptions in the service of a narcissistic and delusional foreign policy. And part of my sadness comes from the fact that the people who make this argument will not acknowledge that fighting on without justification will not give “meaning” to the losses that have come before; it will simply produce more loss.

As usual, the left is even more pathetic.

The left seems constitutionally unable to think clearly enough about the situation to articulate a basis for the policy they advocate, even when good reasons exist. On the political level, it seems that democratic policy is formulated in reaction to the republicans, irrespective of whether it is prudent, practicable, or principled. The democrats are probably right on Iraq: America should disengage. But the idea of placing the execution of this policy in the hands of a party that doesn’t have the slightest reason for doing what they preach scares me. And I would not like to see any strategy reached before this country has an open, intelligent discussion on the matter, even if the path ahead seems increasingly, and depressingly, obvious.

To begin with, I think there is a strong case for remaining in Iraq, though it is not one I have heard uttered by a single member of Congress or the administration. Frank Rich nailed it, as he so often does, in his New York Times column today, when he identified “the one remaining (and unassailable) motivation that still might justify staying the course in Iraq: as a humanitarian mission on behalf of the Iraqi people.” He dismisses this course of action on the ground that the Bush administration has never demonstrated genuine concern for the Iraqis; but this begs the question. If the people of America are capable of having a meaningful debate on this question, it is also possible to wrest the agenda from the White House.

So, in the absence of leadership from our… ummm… leaders, here’s the question: is it possible to redeploy our resources in Iraq in such a way as to minimize the suffering of the Iraqi population and reconstruct the country we have helped to destroy? And are we willing to do that irrespective of the implications for our wistful foreign policy objectives?

I am not a military strategist, nor an expert on Islamic politics; but it seems to me that a pure humanitarian mission in Iraq may well involve accepting a political resolution that seems abhorrent to many. It also involves admitting both the mistake of the military adventure and owning up to the vast damage it has caused. The open question is: even if we had the political will to do these things, is the situation fucked up beyond repair? If so, then there is no purpose in staying in Iraq to pretend we are helping when our efforts are futile or counterproductive.

It may just be that, bad as things will get for the Iraqis if and when U.S. troops depart Iraqi soil, it will be better for them than prolonging the current, agonizing carnage. We owe it to them to get a clear read on this, and to act promptly.

If the country is somehow able to stumble past these questions, an equally daunting set of challenges lies ahead. After we figure out what to do about the damage to Iraq, we need to start work undoing the damage caused to the U.S., its security, its interests in the Middle East, its allegiances, and its reputation.

But ethics require that we answer the first questions first.

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