Adam Ash

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Here's how the Democrats should talk to beat Bush into a pulp about the war

1. Snatching Defeat From The Jaws of Victory
by John Atcheson

The Republican spin machine has settled on their talking points regarding the Democrat’s vote to bring an end to the Iraqi war. As usual, they’re singing in unison. To hear the administration, Fox News, and the right wing pundits tell it, the Democrats are – all together now – undermining the troops, micro-managing the war, and leaving us vulnerable to terrorism. The Dem’s response? Well, so far, they’re all over the map – as usual. Some emphasized that the administration was going to “have to deal with us” as if this were about an inside the beltway power struggle. Others spoke of the House and Senate votes as a harbinger of what a newly unified Democratic Party could and would do. Still other’s celebrated it as the first step to ending this war.

All true, and all to the good, but in the war of sound-bites, the Dems are leaving the best arguments on the table. As a result, they’ll once again find themselves on the defensive, parrying the unified talking points of the Republicans.

Note to the Dems: It’s about the troops, stupid.

Here’s what I’d like to hear the Democrats say:

The funding Bills offer Americans two choices.

On the one hand President Bush wants to continue to send our troops over there without the right training; without the right equipment; without the rest the generals say they need to be effective; without the health care they need when they come back; and with no clear plan to end the war. Just as he’d been doing for more than four years now.

The Democratic Party’s choice is right there in the title of the House Bill: The U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Health, and Iraq Accountability Act.

We want to be sure our troops are properly trained; adequately equipped; rested and ready. We want them to be cared for when they come home. And we want to be sure we have a plan and a schedule to get us out of the fiasco the President created — a civil war that has nothing to do with fighting terrorism.

Then I’d like some steely jawed Democrat – perhaps James Webb – to stare straight into the camera and say, Mr. President:

Don’t talk about supporting the troops when you send them off to war without state-of-the-art armor and with substandard equipment;

Don’t talk about supporting the troops when you send them off to war without the proper training;

Don’t talk about supporting the troops when you send them into harms way without giving them the rest the general say they need to be effective;

Don’t talk about supporting the troops when you send them into a war of choice that has nothing to do with America’s security, with no clear mission, and no plan for getting them out.

And Mr. President, don’t talk about supporting our troops when you fail to provide the funds needed to take care of them when they get home, wounded in body and soul.

And don’t threaten Americans with the specter of al Qeada – if you’ve read your intelligence reports, you know Iraq is a sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. In fact, Mr. Bush, if you’re worried about al Qaeda, you should sign our bill immediately – it puts more money into Afghanistan, where al Qeada and the Taliban actually are.

And don’t try to scare Americans with hoary stories about a failed state. If Iraq descends into chaos and terrorists set up training camps there, we will simply bomb those camps into the stone age.

Don’t pretend “victory” can be won by staying a few more years. It doesn’t matter how long we stay – Sunnis and Shiites have been at each others throats for more than a thousand years and the US military cannot force them to love one another by the threat of a bayonet. Having stirred up this hornets nest, you have unleashed the potential for chaos – it can happen next year, or next decade, but leaving 150,000 US troops in Iraq indefinitely to play whack-a-mole with sectarian insurgents is nothing more than a stop-gap measure, at best. Yes, we may produce a temporary reduction in violence, but sooner or later we will have to leave, and then it will start again.

Are we Democrats micro-managing you? Absolutely. You have proven yourself to be immune to facts, impervious to reason, and infatuated with a fantasy that has no relationship to reality. You initiated this war with deceit, launched it in ignorance, and conducted it with incompetence. When the Commander-in-Chief is a worse bungler than Chief Inspector Clouseau, and dishonest to boot, micro-management is the least we can do.

So go ahead, Mr. President, make my day – veto this Bill, and let’s go to the American people with our respective choices. If you dare.

That’s what I’d like to hear from the Democrats, but it’s unlikely that we will. In an age of spinning, equivocating and triangulation, such honesty has gone the way of the straight-talk express, replaced with rhetorical mush.

Too bad. Our troops need and deserve better.

Thanks for your consideration.

(John Atcheson is a novelist and writer living in Maryland.)

2. Back From Iraq at the Great American Diner


As the only Iraq war veteran in Congress, Representative Patrick Murphy has his own way of fact-finding when he travels back there these days.

“When I was there in ’03, I had a gunner — Pvt. First Class Juan Santiago — and he’s now Sgt. Juan Santiago, still with the 82nd Airborne Division, on his third deployment, away from his wife and two children,” said the Pennsylvania Democrat, a former paratrooper captain. “Sure, I met with General Petraeus, but I had lunch with Santiago and checked with the other guys who could give me the straight story on what they’re seeing out there.”

Mr. Murphy, a 33-year-old Congressional freshman, paused amid the jukebox boom at the Great American Diner and Pub, a roadhouse where he likes to meet with constituents. “The guys said it’s like Groundhog Day all over, four years later.”

That is the message Mr. Murphy is pressing on voters as they hear each other out in his suburban Philadelphia district during Congress’s two-week break. He cites a tearful female sergeant who sought him out to deliver a three-page plea to “speak truth to power” in Washington.

It was his honor to be a junior House whip — a point man, in Army lingo — in the Democrats’ recent passage of a war budget that included timelines for an exit from Iraq. But that’s hardly enough in the lawmaker’s speaking to power.

“President Bush and Vice President Cheney have called me and my colleagues unpatriotic for that vote,” Mr. Murphy said, admitting this still had his Irish up. “With all due respect to Mr. Cheney who had — what was it? — ‘better things to do’ during Vietnam and got four deferments, I don’t think he’s in a position to question my patriotism.”

Mr. Murphy journeyed from a blue-collar upbringing in Philadelphia, where his father was a cop, to enlistment as a teenager in the military. He eventually flourished to become an officer who studied law, and was promoted to Army prosecutor and then to the faculty at West Point. “I’m a guy from Bucks County Community College who wound up at West Point when they needed someone to teach constitutional law!” he summarized, grinning as the epitome of the patriot’s dream.

The day after 9/11, Mr. Murphy volunteered for combat with the 82nd Airborne. In Iraq, he discovered the real war alongside Private Santiago and his other buddies. “Nineteen were killed in my combat brigade; I carry all their names in my pocket,” the congressman said.

In the buzz of the roadhouse, the scene suggested a mini-America: There were more drinkers at the bar ignoring the congressman and watching a ballgame than constituents buttonholing this curious representative who used to lead convoys down Ambush Alley in Baghdad. This day, Mr. Murphy was all diligence, listening to old-timers describe Medicare snafus in tedious detail over beers. “You have my word I’ll try and help,” he promised as his aides took notes.

He did discover a few things from Robin Stelly, a constituent who grilled him on his vote against the domestic budget, which he cast as the newest Blue Dog Democrat, part of the caucus that aims to cut spending.

“I learned the lessons of the ’60s, where I saw the domestic program torpedoed by foreign entanglements,” said Ms. Stelly, a field organizer for PA Action, a nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting social welfare programs.

“He is The Guy in Congress on the war,” Ms. Stelly conceded. She happens to run weekly vigils against the war but thinks her congressman better keep an eye out for the government basics that national recovery will eventually require.

The constituent chats at the diner topped off a good week for Mr. Murphy. His new daughter was due for Easter Sunday baptism, with one of his old combat pals among the guests. “And did you see? I’m on Karl Rove’s top 20 list of targeted Democrats,” he exulted above the bar noise, eager to spread the word to Sergeant Santiago and beyond.

3. How to Get Out of Iraq
by Juan Cole/ The Nation

Both houses of Congress have now backed a timeline for withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq in 2008, which George W. Bush has vowed to veto. He gives two major rationales for rejecting withdrawal. At times he has warned that Iraq could become an Al Qaeda stronghold, at others that “a contagion of violence could spill out across the country–and in time, the entire region could be drawn into the conflict.” These are bogeymen with which Bush has attempted to frighten the public. Regarding the first, Turkey, Jordan and Iran are not going to put up with an Al Qaeda stronghold on their borders; nor would Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis. Most Sunni Iraqis are relatively secular, and there are only an estimated 1,000 foreign jihadis in Iraq, who would be forced to return home if the Americans left.

Bush’s ineptitude has made a regional proxy war a real possibility, so the question is how to avoid it. One Saudi official admitted that if the United States withdrew and Iraq’s Sunnis seemed in danger, Riyadh would likely intervene. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has threatened to invade if Iraq’s Kurds declare independence. And Iran would surely try to rescue Iraqi Shiites if they seemed on the verge of being massacred.

But Bush is profoundly in error to think that continued US military occupation can forestall further warfare. Sunni Arabs perceive the Americans to have tortured them, destroyed several of their cities and to be keeping them under siege at the behest of the joint Shiite-Kurdish government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. American missteps have steadily driven more and more Sunnis to violence and the support of violence. The Pentagon’s own polling shows that between 2003 and 2006 the percentage of Sunni Arabs who thought attacking US troops was legitimate grew from 14 to more than 70.

The US repression of Sunnis has allowed Shiites and Kurds to avoid compromise. The Sunnis in Parliament have demanded that the excesses of de-Baathification be reversed (thousands of Sunnis have been fired from jobs just because they belonged to the Baath Party). They have been rebuffed. Sunnis rejected the formation of a Shiite super-province in the south. Shiites nevertheless pushed it through Parliament. The Kurdish leadership has also dismissed Sunni objections to their plans to annex the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which has a significant Arab population.

The key to preventing an intensified civil war is US withdrawal from the equation so as to force the parties to an accommodation. Therefore, the United States should announce its intention to withdraw its military forces from Iraq, which will bring Sunnis to the negotiating table and put pressure on Kurds and Shiites to seek a compromise with them. But a simple US departure would not be enough; the civil war must be negotiated to a settlement, on the model of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Lebanon.

Talks require a negotiating partner. The first step in Iraq must therefore be holding provincial elections. In the first and only such elections, held in January 2005, the Sunni Arab parties declined to participate. Provincial governments in Sunni-majority provinces are thus uniformly unrepresentative, and sometimes in the hands of fundamentalist Shiites, as in Diyala. A newly elected provincial Sunni Arab political class could stand in for the guerrilla groups in talks, just as Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, did in Northern Ireland.

The United States took a step in the right direction by attending the March Baghdad summit of Iraq’s neighbors and speaking directly to Iran and Syria about Iraqi security. Now the United States and Britain should work with the United Nations or the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to call a six-plus-two meeting on the model of the generally successful December 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan. The Iraqi government, including the president and both vice presidents, would meet directly with the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to discuss the ways regional actors could help end the war as the United States and Britain prepare to depart. Unlike the Baghdad summit, this conference would have to issue a formal set of plans and commitments. Recent Saudi consultations with Iranian leaders should be extended.

The Saudi government should then be invited to reprise the role it played in brokering an end to the Lebanese civil war at Taif in 1989, at which communal leaders hammered out a new national compact, which involved political power-sharing and demobilization of most militias. At Taif II, the elected provincial governors of Iraq and leaders of the major parliamentary blocs should be brought together. Along with the US and British ambassadors to Baghdad and representatives of the UN and the OIC, observers from Iraq’s six neighbors should also be there.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has credibility with Iraq’s Sunnis, especially now that he has denounced the US occupation as illegitimate. They could trust his representations, which would include Saudi development aid in places like Anbar province. Since the Sunnis are the main drivers of violence in Iraq, it is they who must be mollified, bribed, cajoled and threatened into a settlement. The Shiites will have to demobilize the Mahdi Army and Badr Organization as well, and Iran will have to commit to working with the Maliki government to make that happen. A UN peacekeeping force, perhaps with the OIC (where Malaysia recently proffered troops), would be part of the solution.

On the basis of a settlement at Taif II, the US military should then negotiate with provincial authorities a phased withdrawal from the Sunni Arab provinces. The Sunnis will have to understand that this departure is a double-edged sword, since if they continued their guerrilla war, the United States could not protect them from Kurdish or Shiite reprisals. Any UN or OIC presence would be for peacekeeping and could not be depended on for active peace-enforcing. The rewards from neighbors promised at Taif II should be granted in a phased fashion and made dependent on good-faith follow-through by Iraqi leaders.

From all this the Sunni Arabs would get an end to the US occupation–among their main demands–as well as an end to de-Baathification and political marginalization. They would have an important place in the new order and be guaranteed their fair share of the national wealth. Shiites and Kurds would get an end to a debilitating civil war, even if they have to give up some of their maximal demands. The neighbors would avoid a reprise of the destructive Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, which killed perhaps a million people and deeply damaged regional economies. And by ending its occupation, the United States would go a long way toward repairing its relations with the Arab and Muslim world and thus eliminate one of Al Qaeda’s chief recruiting tools. A withdrawal is risky, but on the evidence so far, for the US military to remain in Iraq is a sure recipe for disaster.

[Juan Cole ( ), a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, is the author of Sacred Space and Holy War (IB Tauris).]


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