Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"What the F*** Am I Doing Here?"


No soldier, sailor or Marine serving in Iraq or Afghanistan can be faulted for questioning with the above colorful phrase their presence in either country, or even question being in the comparative safety of Kuwait. Ever since 2001, the Bush administration has a labored mightily to sell the American people on the concept that we are engaged in a war. By calling it a war, of course, it becomes too easy to think of military force as the only solution available to us.

Instead of treating the horror of 9/11 as the criminal act it was, and enlisting the aid of the civilized countries of the world to apprehend and punish the criminals responsible for perpetrating it, this nation launched two preemptive wars, first against Afghanistan and then against Iraq--countries about whose history, culture, language, religion, and politics we really knew little. Having sowed the wind, it should come as no surprise that we reaped the whirlwind. We have finally become aware of the steep price of going into battle under a commander in chief impatient to exhibit the valor of ignorance.

In a nation that President Bush continues to insist is "at war," only about one-half of one percent of the population is serving in the military. Under our current military policy, our troops are still being forced to follow an inexcusable rotation system. Repetitive combat tours in the Middle East will eventually break the regular Army, Reserve units and the National Guard long before they ever achieve success. As our uncomplaining soldiers, sailors and Marines continue to deploy to the heat-stricken sands of Iraq and the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, back home the rest of the country blithely heads to air-conditioned malls to spend what remains of its economic stimulus checks before our economy descends into depression. But hasn’t mindless shopping always been President Bush’s universal remedy for whatever ails this country?

Our war-fighting strategy is skewed and lopsided. It requires a few individuals to sacrifice everything, including their lives, while the rest of us give nothing. As a policy, this is not only morally bankrupt but also totally unforgivable. If the politicians in Washington are unable to reduce the number of wars in which U.S. forces are fighting and dying, then this nation should demand that any administration that pursues undeclared wars must find a way of increasing the number of troops available to fight in them.

If it’s a war, why doesn’t it feel like one?

Good question. Of course, we are at war. President Bush has been saying so for seven years. Michael Chertoff said so as recently as last year. Surely you remember Mr. Chertoff, the cadaverous secretary of Homeland Security. You know--the one who managed to evade criticism for the shortcomings of his underling, Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) after Hurricane Katrina.

In an op ed piece in The Washington Post titled "Make No Mistake, This Is War," Mr. Chertoff assured us gravely that we are indeed at war. His reason? We are at war because Osama bin Laden said we are. Here’s what Mr. Chertoff wrote:

"Is this actually a war? Well, the short answer comes from our enemies. Osama bin Laden’s fatwa of Feb. 23, 1998, was a declaration of war, a self-serving accusation that America had somehow declared war on Islam, followed by a ‘ruling’ to ‘kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military in any country where it is possible to do it."

What the fatwa said was quite specific. It stated that American troops' use of the Arabian Peninsula as a "staging area" and our sanctions against the people of Iraq were a clear declaration of war against God, God’s messenger (Mohammed) and Muslims everywhere. Mr. Chertoff would have you believe that the United States, acknowledged possessor of the world’s most powerful military force, is now in a state of retaliatory war with a sick old man holed up beyond our reach somewhere in the northwest corner of Pakistan.

What’s Wrong with Calling It a War?
The administration has not treated its wars as traditional wars to be declared by Congress under Article One, Section Eight, of the Constitution. Instead, they lumped its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under the rubric of a "global war on terror," and let it go as that. No one questioned the phrase, perhaps because there have been other wars against such ills as drugs, poverty or illiteracy on which large amounts of taxpayers’ dollars have been expended without much to show for it. Nevertheless, the damage done by the self-inflicted wound of these four words far exceeds the wildest dreams of the fanatics who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.

The phrase "global war on terror," is, of course, meaningless. It defines neither a specific theater of war nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy. It is a technique of warfare--political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants, often using improvised weapons like airliners or roadside bombs. The very vagueness of the Bush administration’s cleverly conceived phrase was deliberately calculated to accomplish one major objective and encourage the emergence of a culture of fear.

The four words have almost become a Madison Avenue mantra to be trotted out on appropriate occasions. But the culture of fear is also like a genie let out of a bottle that quickly acquires a life of its own and demoralizes its liberators. Seven years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror have actually undermined our ability to confront the real challenges we face, with the result that America has become insecure and more paranoid.

Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they are pursuing. The war of choice in Iraq could never have gained the congressional support it received without the repeated use of this phrase plus the carefully fabricated lie about the existence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, reelection of President Bush in 2004 was the result of an appeal for a nation at war not to change commanders in midstream. In this, the concept of a lurking danger, however imprecise, was reinforced by the illusion that we are "a nation at war."

To justify its "global war on terror," the administration promulgated the false impression that the conflict resembles earlier struggles, first against Nazism and then against Communism. Both concepts ignored the fact that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were formidable military powers, a level of threat al-Qaida can never hope to achieve. President Bush’s ultimate fear mongering and justification for U.S. troops' presence in Iraq was his ludicrous claim the "we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here."

"Well, if it isn’t a genuine war, what am I watching on TV?"
Readers may very well ask that question. What you are seeing now in footage carefully censored to avoid graphic scenes is the U.S. occupation force of 140,000 keeping the lid on what is, for the present, a low-key Iraqi civil war. In this sense, it is not unlike the Lebanese civil war. Let me refresh your memory: A quarter-century ago, for humanitarian reasons and as part of a multinational force, U.S. Marines landed in Beirut, occupying a makeshift barracks at the Beirut airport a quarter century ago. Early on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, an embryonic Hezbollah group exploded a massive truck bomb in the lobby of the building, causing almost total destruction. Some 244 U.S. service personnel were killed and 60 were injured. President Ronald Reagan realized there was little or nothing our military could do to counter an internecine civil war and wisely withdrew our troops.

Even with the number of American military deaths declining now in Iraq—and one per month would be one too many--the dollar cost, a staggering $3 billion per week, puts us deeper in hock to creditor countries. How many more years will these aimless conflicts continue before the American people insist that they end? Every dollar spent on Basra or Baghdad is a dollar that could have been spent on Buffalo or Baltimore. Every bridge we rebuild over the Tigris River in Iraq is one less bridge that could have been replaced in Minnesota lest it collapse into the Mississippi.

Nearly seven years after invading and occupying Afghanistan and more than five years after doing the same on a grander scale in Iraq, America and its dwindling collection of allies (dubbed "the coalition of the billing") have failed to achieve anything resembling a victory. We have been fought to a standstill by ragtag forces dedicated to liberation of their respective countries from foreign invaders. Our armed forces in Iraq alone have suffered 4,168 deaths and tens of thousands of wounded. The fighting in Afghanistan has been less intensive—almost six hundred American dead in seven years--but the conflict there has been just as purposeless and discouraging. To make these numbers even more forbidding, ever since last May casualties in Afghanistan have exceeded those in Iraq.

Recent "tell-all" accounts of the Bush administration have revealed that waging war in Iraq was the President’s intention from the start, and he let nothing stand in his way. From the very beginning of his term and well before 9/11, President George W. Bush failed to heed clear warnings about al-Qaida's impending terrorist attacks in the United States. Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor, facilitated his self-deception. An academic expert on German-Russian relations with no experience in the Middle East, she was a peculiar choice as national security advisor. Timorous in the presence of a crafty Cheney and an overbearing Rumsfeld, she saw her task as requiring that she insulate Bush from bad news about the Middle East. She played this role so diligently, it left a trusting and uncurious President more ill informed than ever.

Had President Bush known anything about the history of the region he might have hesitated before committing troops to two concurrent pre-emptive wars. Over the centuries, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, the French, the British, and the Russians all invaded parts of the Middle East only to admit ignominious defeat. Now it’s our turn to pack up and depart.

Did no one warn President Bush about the perils of invading the Middle East? Did none of his advisors explain to him that Iraq was a veritable ethnic melange, a nation of nearly 30 million riven by tribal jealousies and ancient blood feuds? Did no one whisper to him that Iraq has been a battlefield where Muslim orthodoxy and secularism clashed for centuries as warring Sunni and Shia factions, the latter strongly influenced by Iran? Did no one hint to him that historically Iraq has been a fiercely contested combat zone of clashing religions, political movements, social classes, and ethnic groups?

Despite these grim realities, our president thrust the United States into the cauldron of the Middle East in the naively foolish belief that democracy, human rights and individual freedom could be imposed at the point of a bayonet. Back home, a preoccupied citizenry, compliant Congress and timid media allowed the armed forces to be hijacked into this mindless military exercise. Following our initially successful invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, we quickly painted ourselves into a corner. Our military, trained and prepared to engage a huge traditional force armed with modern tanks, weapons and missiles on the plains of Central Europe, was flummoxed when it met resistance to our occupation. Challenged by lightly armed civilians and poorly equipped militias, we suddenly found ourselves involved in wars of national liberation--the hardest kind of a war in which to prevail—precipitated by the inadequate size of our occupation forces.

So, What Else Is New?
Slouching unconcernedly from one crisis to the next has been a hallmark of the Bush managerial style. He was similarly unprepared for Hurricane Katrina and out of touch with reality. (Remember his famous remark, "Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job."?) Lately, he has done nothing about the challenge of climate change caused by polluting greenhouse gases.

As he nears the close of his term, Mr. Bush, who has an M.B.A. from Harvard, was equally unprepared with a solution to the financial crisis precipitated by the practices of greedy, unregulated bankers and mortgage lenders. His administration proposed to solve this full-blown imbroglio with a hastily cobbled together rescue plan, the "mother of all bailouts." Under this one-sided salvation of the troubled free-market system, bankers’ profits would be protected but a trillion dollars worth of losses will be passed to taxpayers. To accommodate this, Congress must authorize elevation of the national debt limit to a whopping $11.3 trillion.

And as a result of ex-oilman Bush’s failure to anticipate the rest of the world’s growing demand for oil, we now face an oil crisis exacerbated by the declining value of the dollar against other currencies. Most egregious of all his sins of inattention, he has done absolutely nothing about ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously intending to leave office as a "wartime president." and dump them into the lap of his successor.

What has the sacrifice of so much blood and treasure in the Bush wars accomplished? Without having secured a single drop of the oil that was supposed to finance our invasion of Iraq, the United States has saddled itself with a rundown and virtually ungovernable protectorate incapable of securing its own borders or managing its own affairs. More than four years after national security adviser Condoleezza Rice handed President Bush a handwritten note reading, "Mr. President, Iraq is sovereign," to announce the handover of power to the new Iraqi government, Iraq’s sovereignty remains a will o’ the wisp.

Recalling U.S. success in rebuilding Germany and Japan after the Second World War, the neocons in the administration who launched the Iraqi nation-building project were confident that that the U.S. could replicate those feats. How wrong they were! Today, generation of electricity in Iraq barely meets half the daily national requirements. Oil production has finally reached pre-invasion levels, but distribution systems and pipelines are vulnerable to sabotage. Reports of fraud, waste and incompetence in the administration and distribution of U.S. aid are commonplace. American officials complain repeatedly about the squabbles that paralyze the Iraqi parliament and the unbridled corruption within Iraqi ministries. If one of the principle functions of government is to provide services to its people, then the government of Iraq can be said to barely exist.

In the long run and under the best of circumstances, our misguided efforts will yield an Iraq that is in worse shape than it was before we invaded, a breeding ground of unrest and resistance long into the foreseeable future. Even should we make the decision to withdraw from Iraq, additional American casualties and the abandonment or destruction of billions of dollars’ worth of equipment and supplies will accompany our departure. From this cauldron will emerge a powerful and determined Shiite majority openly linked to Iran, and a minority Sunni population allied with the most regressive political and religious forces in the Muslim world. Both sides will be heavily armed. Having known a measure of independence from Arab rule in Baghdad, restive non-Arab Kurds in the north will not give up that hard-won advantage easily.

In reality, the war's effects are precisely what the Bush administration should have expected. Baghdad’s U.S. embassy has become a fortified bunker with some 57 other fortified strong points scattered around the country. If the Iraq War revealed anything to the rest of the world, it was the narrow limits of political or military action open to the world’s greatest military power. It also emboldened adversaries such as Iran, and diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, the stomping ground of a resurgent and defiant al-Qaida. More damagingly, it fanned anti-American sentiment to incredible levels, recruiting uncounted numbers to al-Qaida’s ranks.

At one time a young American outfitted with a knapsack on which was sewn an American flag could hike north from Mauritania in West Africa to Morocco, eastward across North Africa, then north again along the Mediterranean and then east through Turkey and Muslim countries all the way to Sinkiang in China and be warmly welcomed everywhere along the way. Regrettably, today that same hypothetical hiker would hardly get a few miles outside Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, before meeting an unhappy fate. Therein lies the greatest tragedy of the "global war on terror."

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