Friday was May 1, 2008, the fifth anniversary of the mis-stated announcement by George Bush that “major combat” in Iraq had ended. The latest tactic in Iraq, the “surge” of five brigade combat teams and their support –30,000 soldiers in all – is winding down as these units leave Iraq with no U.S. units coming to replace them.
Adding 30,000 security personnel, even armed with only a pistol, is bound to improve the general safety situation. But if they don’t stay, or if those who fill in when they leave, as the Iraqis are suppose to do, are neither motivated nor trained, the number of “incidents” will start to rise and security will become a diminishing physical reality and, more ominous for the future, a negative state of mind.
The dreaded but anticipated “surge” in fatalities seems to have started. U.S. fatalities have risen for the past two months by 10 and 12 respectively and are back above 50 for the first time since September 2007. Iraqi fatalities jumped to more than 1,000, again for the first time since last September.
More telling for Iraq’s future was the failure of a government effort in early April to break the influence various militias wield in Iraq’s third largest city, Basra. As many as 1,000 Iraqi police and army soldiers either removed their uniforms and went home or simply went over to the militias, with some soldiers taking their arms and ammunition with them.
Looking at recent rhetoric and shifts in aircraft carriers and heavy bomber flight status, one gets a sense that the administration is again trying to shift responsibility for the Iraq debacle to Iraq’s neighbors. Now blame-shifting is a time-honored art in the world of diplomacy. Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally in the 1980s but became an enemy in the 1990s.
When the Bush White House decided to go after Saddam in 2002, the Iraqi leader suddenly became the nexus of evil in the Gulf. Afghanistan went from a Tailban stronghold to a working democracy that did not need intensive support from Washington even though situation reports from field commanders were never rosy even in the weeks right after the Taliban lost Kabul. The attempted assassination of President Hamid Karzai last week is but an exclamation point following any unbiased evaluation of the state of security in Afghanistan.
The level of public cynicism about White House pronouncements has risen dramatically in the last few months as confidence in the president and his Iraq war policies have sunk to record lows in the opinion polls. Yet when it comes to Iran, the U.S. public seems less inclined to jettison the White House accusations, particularly those dealing with arming and training anti-U.S. fighters destined for Iraq. Is the public letting itself be drawn into yet another armed confrontation with another Islamic nation in the Middle East? Sadly, the answer may be yes.
The people of this country are notorious for failing to learn from their history. It’s not as if our national identity and culture have existed for millennia – or even half a millennia. We have approximated the characteristics of a country only since representatives from the 13 British colonies in North America declared themselves independent in 1776. As for possessing a sense of nationhood, that arguably is less than a century old and corresponds to the emergence of the United States as a significant presence on the international stage – between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II.
Another way to look at the problem is the foreshortened period for national maturity: having time to learn by observation, reflection, action, and evaluation of the machinations of the great powers that dominated the international stage between 1776 and 1941. It is notable that of our early presidents, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams were all Secretary of State before they were president and thus understood the power of diplomacy and negotiation in international relations.
But for the most part, as a nation, the people of the United States are guilty of widespread inattention to what is occurring in the world and the sequencing of events that leads to shallow perceptions formed by the interplay of fleeting impressions of actions-rhetoric-events. The great irony is that those elected to lead a generally inattentive public are themselves most anxious about the judgment of history and their “mark” or place therein.
Such a-historicity can be costly, however, for it removes from the public discourse that vital sense of déjà vu that serves as a memory jolt when past questionable assumptions, faulty logic, and inadequate analysis resurface in the calculations of ideologues who exploit this inattentiveness to gain political power.
On this doleful anniversary, it is worth remembering that our current involvement in the Persian Gulf is not our second but our third in the last 30 years. The first was the re-flagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers and U.S. Navy escort of neutral vessels in the Gulf in the last two years of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
(Keep in mind that on November 4, 1979, as the interim Iranian government that took power when the Shah fled into exile was itself crumbling, university students overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran, seizing 60 embassy workers and holding most of them hostage to the end of the Carter administration 444 days later. Carter attempted to win the release of the hostages through diplomacy, but when this effort changed nothing, he authorized a “special operation.” On April 25, 1980, the rescue attempt ended in a fiery accident that left eight Americans dead and the hostages even further from freedom.)
Although Saddam Hussein had started the war and was the first to ignore UN resolutions to desist attacking neutral vessels, in Washington’s eyes Iran was the villain. That did not change even when, on May 17, 1987, an Iraqi Super-Entendard fired an Exocet missile that struck the destroyer USS Stark, killing 37 sailors. When the investigation was over, Saddam apologized for the terrible “mistake.” Many were unconvinced that the attack was a mistake. They were then incredulous when Washington blamed Iran for “escalating” the war, thereby putting the Stark in harm’s way.
Sheer exhaustion ended the fighting. A UN resolution ended the war. Nothing ended the hatred which still today, even with Saddam dead, drives many of the relationships in the Gulf.
With its time in office ebbing and the outcome of the war in Iraq so uncertain, the Bush administration may be calculating that drawing Iran into the rhetorical maelstrom diffuses its responsibility and thus will temper history’s judgment. If so, it is a dangerous game which could escalate through misinterpretations or simple accident.