State of Denial (or, the only way to salvage Iraq is to vote D in November)

by Peter

3 October 2006, 1541 EDT

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and publicly post a response to a debate that I’ve been having with a friend on email for a while now. Moreover, I’m going to go even more out on a limb and argue, well, you saw the title. The beauty of a blog.

Background: What got this started was my earlier post where I concluded that withdrawal from Iraq was the least-bad option. My friend replied, yes, but isn’t that just leaving a mess that will do further, future damage? In a way, he echoed David Ignatius’s point:

Many Democrats act as if that’s the end of the discussion: A mismanaged occupation has created a breeding ground for terrorists, so we should withdraw and let the Iraqis sort out the mess. Some extreme war critics are so angry at Bush they seem almost eager for America to lose, to prove a political point. Even among mainstream Democrats, the focus is “gotcha!” rather than “what next?” That is understandable, given the partisanship of Republican attacks, but it isn’t right.

Now, in principle, I agree– simply saying you’re wrong doesn’t do much to solve the problem.

However, the more I think about it, I think that Kevin Drum has a very valid point:

Various luminaries in the liberal foreign policy community have been proposing Iraq policies right and left for over three years now. Initially, that perhaps we should have kept our focus on Afghanistan and stayed out of Iraq altogether. Then, once we were there, liberal thinkers suggested more troops, dialogue with Iran, a multilateral council to accelerate regional investment in Iraq’s progress, a variety of counterinsurgency strategies, a variety of partition plans, more serious engagement in Israeli-Palestinian talks (Tony Blair practically begged for this), and on and on. Every single one of these suggestions was ignored.

Would they have made any difference? Who knows. But to blame Democrats now for not being aggressive enough in trying to trisect this angle is like blaming Gerald Ford for losing Vietnam. George Bush fought this war precisely the way he wanted, with precisely the troops he wanted, and with every single penny he asked for. He has kept Don Rumsfeld in charge despite abundant evidence that he doesn’t know how to win a war like this. He has mocked liberals and the media at every turn when they suggested we might need a different approach. The result has been a disaster with no evident solution left.

It’s one thing to ask for “debate,” but it’s quite another to ask for a pony that doesn’t exist anymore and to blame Democrats when they’re unable to produce yet another one after three years of trying. That makes no sense.

Then, on Sunday, I read my Washington Post and watched 60 Minutes, both featuring Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial. The Post ran exclusive exerpts in the Sunday and Monday paper. The argument, in a nutshell: The war in Iraq is going much, much worse than the Administration has admitted to in public, and the President himself is in a state of denial about how bad things actually are.

There was a vast difference between what the White House and Pentagon knew about the situation in Iraq and what they were saying publicly. But the discrepancy was not surprising. In memos, reports and internal debates, high-level officials of the Bush administration have voiced their concern about the United States’ ability to bring peace and stability to Iraq since early in the occupation.

On 60 Minutes on Sunday, Woodward said that Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all US Forces in Iraq has serious doubts about Rumsfeld and the war:

And, according to Woodward, another key general, John Abizaid, who’s in charge of the whole Gulf region, told friends that on Iraq, Rumsfeld has lost all credibility.

“What does that mean, he doesn’t have any credibility anymore?” Wallace asks.

“That means that he cannot go public and articulate what the strategy is. Now, this is so important they decide,” Woodward explains. “The Secretary of State Rice will announce what the strategy is. This is October of last year.” She told Congress the U.S. strategy in Iraq is “clear, hold and build.”

“Rumsfeld sees this and goes ballistic and says, ‘Now wait a minute. That’s not our strategy. We want to get the Iraqis to do these things.’ Well it turns out George Bush and the White House liked this definition of the strategy so it’s in a presidential speech he’s gonna give the next month,” Woodward tells Wallace. “Rumsfeld sees it. He calls Andy Card, the White House chief of staff and says ‘Take it out. Take it out. That’s not our strategy. We can’t do that.’ Card says it’s the core of what we’re doing. That’s two and a half years after the invasion of Iraq. They cannot agree on the definition of the strategy. They cannot agree on the bumper sticker.”

“General John Abizaid, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, you quote him as saying privately a year ago that the U.S. should start cutting its troops in Iraq. You report that he told some close Army friends, quote, ‘We’ve gotta get the f out.’ And then this past March, General Abizaid visited Congressman John Murtha on Capitol Hill,” Wallace says.

“John Murtha is in many ways the soul and the conscience of the military,” Woodward replies. “And he came out and said, ‘We need to get out of Iraq as soon as it’s practical’ and that sent a 10,000 volt jolt through the White House.”

“Here’s Mr. Military saying, ‘We need to get out,'” Woodward continues. “And John Abizaid went to see him privately. This is Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s commander in Iraq,” Woodward says.

“And John Abizaid held up his fingers, according to Murtha, and said, ‘We’re about a quarter of an inch apart, said, ‘We’re that far apart,'” Woodward says.

Most troubling, to me, at least, and what leads me to my point, is when Woodward told Mike Wallace:

And Woodward says that no matter what has occurred in Iraq, Mr. Bush does not welcome any pessimistic assessments from his aides, because he’s sure that his war has Iraq and America on the right path.

“Late last year he had key Republicans up to the White House to talk about the war. And said, ‘I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me.’ Barney is his dog,”

I could go on and on and on. The fundamental problem is that we face an administration which “knows” the war isn’t going well, but can’t fundamentally change its approach because it a) is led by a President so blindly committed to his cause that he can’t see any other options and b) is so politically orriented, it can’t admit mistakes or change course. Compounding the problem is a Republican Congress unwilling to ask the tough questions and hold any in the administration accountable.

My response is this: the first step is to admit that we’ve got a problem. This is something the Bush Administration just can’t do. This isn’t “gotcha” politics, this is calling the situation what it is–a mess– and looking for the people, policies, and choices that got us into that mess. Once we admit, that, as a nation, politically, we can then start to legitimate a debate on where to go next. If, as Woodward argues, Rumsfeld is part of the problem, then hold him to account and get rid of him. Bush and the Republican congress are unwilling to do this.

So, my conclusion: Democratic control of Congress, most importantly the Senate. It starts with Chairman Carl Levin calling Rumsfeld to a hearing of the Armed Services Committee, and forcing him, under oath, to go over, in explicit detail, each and every step of the Iraq war and occupation. It starts with Chairman Henry Waxman of House Government Reform and Oversight examining why a $75 million dollar Iraqi police academy leaks feces on the recruits who are supposed to secure Iraq.

And, its something every American can actively do. Vote: Ford, Brown, Webb, Casey, McCaskil, and all the others.

Accountability. Its the first step in having the important, necessary, national debate about Iraq. We can’t clean up the mess until we’re willing to admit that we’ve made a mess in the first place– something the Administration hasn’t and seemingly can’t do. Some opposition, some countervailing political power, some Checking and Balancing is a good way to start.

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