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Why Should We Care About Iraq?

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On April 8th, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker told the Senate the President's Iraq surge strategy has "worked" and, therefore, current troop levels should be maintained. The hearings came at a time when public attention has shifted from the occupation to the economy. Given the looming recession, why should Americans care how long our troops stay in Iraq? On January 10th, 2007, President Bush announced the troop surge and additional forces started showing up in March. Nonetheless, media coverage of Iraq diminished. A March Pew Research poll found "the percentage of news stories devoted to the war dropped from an average of 15 percent of all stories last July to just 3 percent in February of this year." In the face of the prospect that nothing will change in Iraq until a new President takes office, why should Americans care what happens over the next ten months? There are three critical considerations that demand our attention. The US does not have unlimited resources. At the heart of the Bush ideology lurks the belief America can pursue a neo-conservative foreign policy agenda without negatively impacting lives of average Americans. The Bush Administration has disdained the notion of sacrifice and repeatedly suggested the occupation of Iraq has no impact on the economy. After five years of war, most Americans don't believe this. At the April 8th hearing, Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich observed: "We've kind of bankrupted this country" and "The American people have had it up to here." The continued occupation has not made America safer. When the Bush Administration deigns to discuss the cost of the occupation - either in lives or dollars - they use the argument no matter what the cost it is worth it because it is better to fight terrorist in the streets of Iraq than in the streets of the US. Continuing the occupation for as long as it takes is the centerpiece of Senator McCain's foreign policy; he asserts that if the US were to "abandon" Iraq it would destabilize the entire Middle East. However, most Americans no longer buy the Bush/McCain argument. At the April 8th hearing, Virginia Republican Senator John Warner asked, "Is all this sacrifice [in Iraq] bringing about a more secure America?" While General Petraeus hedged, Democrats, and many Congressional Republicans, believe the occupation has not made America safer and is damaging our military. In parallel with the Petraeus/Crocker hearings, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody told a congressional committee "how troops and their families are being taxed by long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." Appearing on "Good Morning America" former Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed similar concerns about the health of the military. Rather than make the US safer, the occupation has weakened the military and homeland security, emboldened terrorists, and diverted attention from the pursuit of Al Qaeda leaders in northwest Pakistan. The occupation has no clear objective and, therefore, no predictable endpoint. President Bush, General Petraeus, and Ambassador Crocker conflate security and political progress. There was never any question that if the US Army decided to become Iraq's police force, the level of violence would subside. The key question is not about security; it is whether the Iraqis have the wherewithal to achieve political reconciliation. Unless they develop the capacity to form a stable state, the civil war will continue. Last year, when President Bush announced the surge, he also stated "America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced." (In August 2006, the White House and the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to 18 key benchmarks.) In January of this year, The Center for American Progress reviewed Iraqi political progress using the same benchmarks. Of the 18 only 3 had been fully accomplished; 5 were viewed as partially accomplished; and 10 were seen as not accomplished. The last set included critical elements such as holding provincial elections, passing legislation to distribute oil revenues, and disarming militias. (This agreed with the September 4th GAO assessment.) Since January 2007, President Bush has minimized the importance of these benchmarks and they were downplayed during the most recent Petraeus/Crocker testimony. Thus, the role of US forces in Iraq has shifted from "nation building" to "keeping the peace," While Americans are distracted by the recession, we must pay more attention to the occupation of Iraq: America doesn't have unlimited resources and can't afford to extend the occupation indefinitely. Not only has the occupation made the US less safe, it is hurting our troops. And, while US troops serve as Iraq's national police force, the Iraqis have done little to develop a stable government. Lyndon Johnson famously observed, "no matter how hard you try, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t." The Bush Administration is trying to sell Americans "chicken salad." Hopefully, we'll recognize what we're actually being offered.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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