Sorry not to have written for the past few days. Every once in a while something awful happens, and I just can't think what to say, or face writing about it, so I go off and do more pleasant things that don't involve dealing with the news, like cleaning behind the refrigerator or having dental work. This time, of course, what sent me off into a frenzy of sanding plaster was the killing in Iraq.
Every time things get worse, it feels as though this is as bad as it could get. I mean: after 220 killings in one day, a major assault on government ministries, and reprisals in which people set other people on fire, it feels as though it couldn't possibly get worse. And yet, of course, I know that it can and probably will; and that while I can say what some of the worse things are -- other countries invading, attacks on our supply lines -- there are others I won't imagine until I read about them. (The present role of power tools in the sectarian violence was like that: for some reason, I never imagined torturing people with drills.) And the certainty that I will, in a few months, learn exactly what the next round of even worse horrors will be, even though it feels as though things couldn't possibly get worse, just makes me want to hide under the covers.
I don't have anything interesting to say about what we should do, other than: leave in as non-catastrophic a way as possible, maintaining enough troops in the vicinity (Kuwait? Kurdistan?) to prevent other countries from invading, and to be in a position to prevent some genuine humanitarian disaster. (Yes, of course it's already a disaster, but while we can't stop the ongoing carnage, we could and should intervene if one group were to begin systematically massacring all members of another, the way, say, the Hutu did.) -- I've always seen comments about the Democrats' not having a plan, when made by the administration or Republicans in Congress, as being exactly like this: someone is driving a car towards a cliff. You point out that there's a cliff ahead. He says: that's not a cliff; it's a transformed Middle East! You try to persuade him that it's a cliff. You offer to drive. You do everything you can think of, to no avail. Eventually the car goes over the cliff. As you hurtle towards the densely populated plains below, he turns to you and says: well, apparently you don't have a plan either! -- In some situations, all the non-disastrous options have gone glimmering, and the person who got you into such a situation isn't really in a position to complain that you can't figure out how to avoid catastrophe.
I do wish, however, that people would stop saying things about Iraq that are just stupid. This means you, John McCain. McCain says that we need to put more troops in Iraq, and yet he must know as well as I do that we don't have more troops to put there. According to Robert Reich, he said that he was saying this because it's "important for the morale of the troops." This is ridiculous: for one thing, if Senator McCain was really concerned about the morale of the troops, he should have tried to persuade his fellow Republican Senators to exercise real oversight over the administration's conduct of the war, and if he failed, he should have spoken out about what he saw as its shortcomings. Real leadership, and a real effort to make sure things go right, makes a bigger difference to morale than playing "Let's pretend". For another, much as the troops' morale matters, the country has a greater need for honest discussion of Iraq just now; and by substituting what he knows is a fiction, Senator McCain does us all a disservice, the troops included. It seems much more likely to me that he's saying this in preparation for 2008. He knows that what he's proposing is in fact impossible, but by insisting that this is what we need, he can say that the administration didn't take his advice, and thus that he is not responsible for the failure of our policy in Iraq, when he runs for President.
I once had real respect for John McCain. I disagreed with him on all sorts of things, but I respected him. That respect was already fraying pretty badly as a result of his groveling before the religious right, but it has now been shattered once and for all. You don't put politics above something as important as this. You just don't.
Likewise, I heard someone on Late Edition -- I think Henry Kissinger, but the transcript isn't up yet, so I could be getting confused -- say that if we pull out of Iraq, we will be seen as weak by al Qaeda. Well, yes, we will. And this will be a very bad thing. However, the time to consider that problem has passed. We should have thought about it before deciding to invade Iraq in the first place. I think that everyone who is so much as considering advocating any war should consider very seriously the possibility that that war might end up with us having to pull out, and people concluding as a result that we can be beaten. It's always a potential downside, one that is not shared by the much-derided air strikes and cruise missiles, which no one expects to go on indefinitely, and which can therefore be stopped without anyone's being tempted to say: ha ha, we forced them to stop.
We should also have thought about this when we were planning the war. We should have said: we really, really do not want this to end with our being forced to leave without having achieved what we set ourself to achieve. How can we avoid that? Obviously, by doing absolutely everything in our power to ensure that we succeed in doing what we set out to do, even if unforeseen catastrophes strike. This, of course, would have required doing serious planning for the post-Saddam phase of the war, recruiting the best possible people to implement those plans, and so on. No 23 year old Heritage Foundation interns placed in charge of the Baghdad stock exchange, no failure to develop plans for maintaining order after the fall of Saddam, no 'oops, we forgot to disarm the militias', none of that nonsense.
However, having failed to consider the possibility of being forced out at any of the points at which it might have made a real difference, we are now stuck with two choices. First, we can leave and incur this cost. Second, we can stay in Iraq indefinitely. One might think that at some point -- ten years from now? Fifteen? -- we would be able to withdraw without giving anyone the right to conclude that we can be pushed out. However, staying that long would not prevent anyone from concluding that we were pushed out; it would only postpone it, at an enormous cost in lives and destruction and money. The Israelis stayed in southern Lebanon for eighteen years, if memory serves. Even after all that time, Hezbollah still maintained that it had driven them out, and a lot of people believed them. So there's no particular reason to think that we would ever be able to leave Iraq without al Qaeda, or someone, concluding that we are a flimsy paper tiger.
As I said, the time to worry about this problem was before we decided to invade, and then before we decided that we were just too righteous and awesome to need to worry about niggling little details like planning and foresight. Now, it's too late.
I also wish people would stop talking about this as if it were solely a question of our will. I do think that it was once a question of our will, as I wrote here. While we might well have failed in Iraq whatever we did, the fact that the Bush administration apparently didn't care enough about winning to try to do it right, and that a majority of American voters did not care enough about winning to vote George W. Bush out of office once his incompetence had become clear, sealed our fate. But the fact that people are no longer willing to entrust their husbands, wives, children, or parents' lives to the tender mercies of the Bush administration does not show that we are not willing to do what it takes to win, any more than it would show that we didn't want to win if Bush told us that in order to win the war he needed to publicly behead several citizens a day as sacrifices to the war gods, and none of us volunteered. All it shows is that there are limits to our idiocy.
Most of all, though, what I wish is that when I turned on the Sunday talk shows, I got some hint that the who are making policy for us, and the talking heads who debate it, were mature adults. Mature adults don't pretend that we have more troops to send when we don't. They do not imagine that it's always possible to undo their mistakes. Sometimes, you screw up in a way that cannot be undone; the way to deal with this is to try as hard as you can not to make those mistakes in the first place, not to insist, once you've made them, that there has to be a way to set them right. And they most especially do not go on talking this way when their willful blindness will cost other people their lives.
We have screwed up our invasion of Iraq beyond hope of repair. Moreover, we have passed the point at which there is any hope that our continued presence will do more good than harm. We cannot make good on our real responsibility to undo the enormous amount of damage we have done, or emerge from Iraq with anything like honor. I don't see anything we can do to change that. We can, however, try to confront our situation honestly, and try to figure out the least damaging way forward. That's what a grown-up would do. It's a pity there are so few grown-ups in evidence.
* Footnote: my present leading candidate for the Most Completely Idiotic Comment About Iraq Award, outdoing even the "it's the Democrats' fault" crowd, is here. It begins: "To be sure, if we are forced to leave Iraq and it plunges into chaos, it will be a stain on our honor; but an even bigger stain will spread if we allow ourselves to be the conduits through which Iran and Syria spread their influence."
[Brittle, despairing laughter] Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! [/Brittle, despairing laughter]
Personally, I have a lot less equanimity about losing than the author seems to. I think that we have lost the war, and that the combination of having invaded and having lost is a disaster that it will take us decades to undo. (And that's without even getting into how long it will take Iraq to recover.) But what's really amazing is that the author does not seem to know that we became the conduit through which Iran spread its power the day we invaded Iraq. If not helping Iran spread its influence was such a priority for him, he should have opposed the invasion from the outset.