Gene Lyons: Into the morass
Remember the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush? It happened on Dec. 14, 2008, near the end of the president’s second term. Bush had traveled to Baghdad for a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The two announced the signing of the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement promising that all American soldiers would leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
“This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” yelled TV correspondent Muntadhar al-Zaidi in Arabic as Bush ducked nimbly away. “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq,” he shouted as he flung his second shoe.
“I don’t think that you can take one guy throwing his shoe as representative of the people of Iraq,” sniffed White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, who sustained a black eye in the melee.
Actually, things are a lot worse than that, it’s been tempting to observe while watching President Obama struggling to contain the predictable aftermath of the worst strategic blunder in U.S. history. For sheer destructive folly, only Vietnam rivals the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Predictable because, as Eric Alterman reminds us at BillMoyers.com, the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus view of 16 different U.S. spy agencies, did predict it. Titled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” it concluded that dismembering Iraq’s government and disbanding its army had greatly multiplied the threat of Islamic terrorism.
As reported by Mark Mazzetti in the New York Times, the draft report described “actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.”
At least that’s what it said before the little gremlins in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office censored the final document. Even so, a 2005 study by the National Intelligence Council also concluded “that Iraq had become the primary training ground for the next generation of terrorists.”
History records that the Obama administration beat the treaty deadline by two weeks, completing the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq on Dec. 16, 2011. The president spent much of the 2012 presidential campaign bragging about it.
Well, he wasn’t doing a whole lot of bragging last week.
Indeed, listening to the president’s cogent, almost professorial explanation of his administration’s response to the rapid takeover of large parts of Iraq and Syria by ISIL militants, I found myself wondering how much Obama himself believed his own words.
“Iraqi leaders,” he said “must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future. Shia, Sunni, Kurds — all Iraqis — must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence.”
Yes, and snow cones and magic ponies for all the little children.
This too: “The United States will not pursue military options that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another. There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States. But there is an urgent need for an inclusive political process, a more capable Iraqi security force, and counterterrorism efforts that deny groups like ISIL a safe haven.”
No military solution, just a more capable Iraqi army. All that and a defensive perimeter around Baghdad, too! Manned by Shiite militias of doubtful loyalty to Iraq’s government and possibly by Iranian soldiers, Obama was careful not to say aloud.
Indeed, as Iraq descends into a full-scale sectarian civil war, the best possible outcome from an (amoral) American point of view would be a bloody stalemate and ultimately, perhaps, partition.
But Obama can’t say those things either, although he came close when he told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell that the idea of arming “farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before” to overthrow a brutal dictator like Syria’s Assad and also defeat ruthless jihadists was a “fantasy.”
He said the Washington press corps needed to understand that.
Above all, the president needs to heed Gen. David Petraeus’ warning that the U.S. not let itself be manipulated into serving as a Shiite air force.
Politically speaking, however, here’s the catch: The more President Obama does what Americans say they want done in foreign affairs — i.e. pulling back from insane Middle Eastern ethnic and religious conflicts — the worse his polling numbers get.
It’s almost as if people yearn for a make-believe, action-figure president like the one George W. Bush impersonated until the roof fell in. Or possibly like Ronald Reagan, who got the hell out of Lebanon after a Beirut terrorist strike killed 287 Marines, but who talked tough and invaded tiny Grenada.
Basically, too many Americans want victory without sacrifice. They like to chant “We’re number one!” but with lower taxes and no fatalities.
That’s a fantasy too, from which we may slowly awaken.
Gene Lyons, Arkansas Times columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.