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Congress is still asleep

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February 13, 2007

It is a matter of debate whether the media or the opposition party should take the lead in criticizing the administration. (See my note of June 4, 2004). In the case of the Iraq war, and to a lesser extent other policies of the Bush administration, both have failed. Each is beginning to awaken to the futility of prolonging the war in Iraq, but it is a painfully slow process.

In my note of February 8 ( February 11) I referred to suggestions by several columnists of a disengagement from Iraq. Those columns didn't break any new ground except in the sense that they reflected the beginnings of change in the mainstream, establishment media. However, as cautious as these commentators are, they still are several steps ahead of Congress.

Having watched the Senate tie itself in procedural knots, the House Democrats have decided to debate as stripped-down a resolution as one could imagine. Here's the full text:

(1) Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq; and

(2) Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq.

It's a start, but much more is needed.

If the mainstream media don't alert Congress to its responsibilities, who might? Bloggers have some impact. Military and foreign affairs analysts have more, and some of them are highly critical of the war. Take Edward Luttwak, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as an example. In an op-ed in The New York Times on February 6, he said that the surge will fail, and the sooner the better, as that will allow Bush to blame the Maliki government for the failure and start withdrawal. Whether Mr. Bush would in fact respond in that fashion is doubtful, but it provides an entre'e for Luttwak's suggestion: "Fortunately, there is a promising, long-term policy ready and waiting for President Bush whenever he decides to call off the good old college try of his surge: disengagement."

Luttwak rejects "total abandonment," and even phased withdrawal, but his plan sounds like the latter. "[I]t would start with a tactical change: American soldiers would no longer patrol towns and villages, conduct cordon-and-search operations, or man outposts and checkpoints. An end to these tasks would allow the greatest part of the troops in Iraq to head home, starting with overburdened reservists and National Guard units." The remaining forces would cease acting as a police force, and end their embedding in Iraqi units; they would "hole up within safe and mostly remote bases in Iraq - to support the elected government, deter foreign invasion, dissuade visible foreign intrusions, and strike at any large concentration of jihadis should it emerge."

Retired General William E. Odom, former head of the National Security Agency and professor at Yale, is another source. Writing in The Washington Post on February 11, he began with a reference to the January 7 National Intelligence Estimate: "Victory, as the president sees it, requires a stable liberal democracy in Iraq that is pro-American. The NIE describes a war that has no chance of producing that result. In this critical respect, the NIE, the consensus judgment of all the U.S. intelligence agencies, is a declaration of defeat." The last two sentences overstate the case, but it's certainly true that the NIE gives little comfort to those who still tell us to the stay the course.

Odom's article contains a good summary of the myths involved in the Iraq debate. Myth no. 1 is "We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon." His response: "Undoubtedly we will leave a mess - the mess we created, which has become worse each year we have remained. . . .But this 'aftermath' is already upon us; a prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists." He is unambiguous in declaring the Iraq war to be a disaster: "The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options."

In addition to the NIE, the White House had the Iraq Study Group report for guidance. It was not an impressive document but it offered the administration a way out of Iraq. Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel and professor at Boston University, discussed it in a recent article in The American Conservative. In his view, it had an entirely different impact. "To embrace the ISG's findings meant renouncing unilateralism . . . . Neoconservatives instantly grasped the nature of the threat: the issue at hand was not simply Iraq. . . . If Bush took the bait - if he chose to cut his losses in Iraq - the effect would be to discredit their entire approach to foreign policy." From their panic arose a counter-solution: the surge. Bacevich believes it won't succeed, and it that simply delays the time when we must face "Iraq's incontrovertible lessons: that preventive war doesn't work, that American power has limits, that the world is not infinitely malleable, and that grasping for 'benign global hegemony' is a self-defeating proposition."

My final example is Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor and professor at Johns Hopkins. On February 1, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he delivered a scathing indictment of our Iraq policy. The war in Iraq, driven by "Manichean impulses and imperial hubris," is an "historic, strategic, and moral calamity." Remaining bogged down in Iraq will lead to further disaster, including conflict with Iran. "The United States should reaffirm explicitly and unambiguously its determination to leave Iraq in a reasonably short period of time. . . . The United States should announce that it is undertaking talks with the Iraqi leaders to jointly set with them a date by which U.S. military disengagement should be completed, and the resulting setting of such a date should be announced as a joint decision. In the meantime, the U.S. should avoid military escalation."

The other source of influence is the public. Usually we think of public opinion as following and being molded by the pronouncements of the administration, Congress, the media and the experts. However, this is one of those situations in which the public sees the light more clearly than the first three. The administration pretends that the election didn't happen, the Democrats in Congress are too timid to act on its message, and the mainstream media still take their cues from the White House. As Odom put it, "The public awakened to the reality of failure in Iraq last year and turned the Republicans out of control of Congress to wake it up. . . . For the moment, the collision of the public's clarity of mind, the president's relentless pursuit of defeat and Congress's anxiety has paralyzed us."

So, as our leaders dally, the end of this tragedy is pushed further into the future. The twelve-to-eighteen month timelines we keep hearing about, leading to "victory" or withdrawal, never quite seem to begin. The first step down either road is like a song from "Annie": "Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya, tomorrow. You're always a day away!"

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Gerald Day is a retired lawyer living near Seattle. He writes a journal on politics and the news media at
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