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“Tell Me How This Ends”


From the article Iraq Will Be Petraeus’ Knot to Untie in the Washington Post, January 7:

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is President Bush’s choice to become the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, posed a riddle during the initial march to Baghdad four years ago that now becomes his own conundrum to solve: “Tell me how this ends.”

That query, uttered repeatedly to a reporter then embedded in Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division, revealed a flinty skepticism about prospects in Iraq — and the man now asked to forestall a military debacle.

The article does not answer Petraeus’ question; it is only a short bio of the General. We are left to wonder what will happen to Iraq or any number of countries in which the US now finds itself (or its ally) fighting, from Afghanistan and the borders of Pakistan to Gaza to Lebanon to Somalia. Somalia is just the latest recipient of the Bush policy that claims the US has a unilateral right to use military force in any nation in which it finds persons we regard as “terrorists.” But Petraeus’ riddle is perhaps the most important issue facing the country as the President announces his plans to escalate the Iraq war.

I doubt that the President understands this question. As best I can tell, the President and his “national security team,” seem to be preoccupied with not losing a war they started, especially not during Bush’s term. They still believe, or at least claim to believe, that they can still “win” their war. But that belief seems be based on the non sequitur that since the consequences of losing are unthinkable to them, winning is the only option. As McCain put it, “It’s just so hard for me to contemplate failure that I can’t make the next step.” McCain repeated the argument for WaPo and before AEI, and AEI’s Frederick Kagan added his own fears about the consequences of failure on CSPAN’s Washington Journal. Henry Kissinger, who helped Nixon deny that we lost the Viet Nam war, and left that unhappy result for President Ford, is the current President’s model for how to leave a losing hand to the hapless sap that follows you.

I have been struggling with a similar question ever since I watched the twin towers in flames and heard the instant analysis that we had been attacked by an extremist Islamic group called al-Qaeda. Beyond the horrors of death and destruction, all I could think of was, “we have become the Middle East. We will be just like the Israelis and the Palestinans, locked in the cycle of hatred, revenge and counter revenge, with no clear vision of how we get out of that cycle. And our leaders will not see this until it is too late.”

I knew then that our President and the people around him were unlikely to understand what was about to happen to the country in the absence of an extraordinary and unprecedented alternative vision. If anyone was articulating such a vision, they could not be heard over the President’s bullhorn and chest thumping. We would invade Afghanistan in months, and Iraq a year after that.

The absence of an alternative vision not based on unilateral military intervention continues to drive American foreign policy and represents its most profound failure. It is a lack of imagination far more serious than the inability to forsee hijacked airplanes flying into buildings.

On Sunday night, that failure led US forces to extend the war against Islam to Somalia, not because Somalia lies at some strategic coordinates on the geopolitical map, and certainly not because its people or non-existent government represent any serious threat to Americans or the United States. No, we unleashed a Specter (“Spooky”) gunship, with its awesomely lethal howitzer, cannons and gattling guns, on what was apparently a village at the southern tip of Somalia, because we wanted to kill certain people we claimed were al-Qaeda.

Initial reports indicate that 5-10 people (US claims) or 30 or more (Somali figures) were killed instantly. Within hours, CNN was showing us the pictures of a half dozen men US officials claim are al-Qaeda leaders, but even today there are no confirmed reports that the people we killed were those in the pictures. We just assume we were shooting at the “right” people. That unchallenged disconnect is a consistent pattern.

Just as it did not matter that as many as 20-30 Pakistanis civilians were killed in an effort to kill some al Qaeda leader thought to be meeting in a Pakistani house, it did not matter that there might have been other Somali people killed in this latest attack and now more follow up US attacks, or that some of the victims were probably innocent, or that we were not even technically at war with those we wanted to attack. We did not do this because Congress passed an Authorization to Use Military Force in Somalia.

No, we did it because our President claims we have the right to murder people in other countries if he decides he wants to do so. And we were in apparent violation of Security Council resolutions, which we helped pass, banning the introduction of weapons into Somalia from outside nations. We are an outside nation. In short, we attacked people in another country because we claim we don’t have to obey any laws anywhere — not ours, not theirs, not the UN’s. And that, my friends, is exactly the belief that terrorists everywhere hold.

“Tell me how this ends.” Does it end by the US killing everyone who hates America, or every one the neocons hate? Last I checked, that was moving in the direction of a very large number of Muslims; if so, we are significantly outnumbered. There are a billion or so Muslims who do not share our view that we have the unilateral right to kill them just because members of al Qaeda attacked us. In that context, the notion that sending 20,000 more US troops to help pacify or kill (with an even hand) angry Sunni and Shiite Muslims because they don’t want us in their country seems incredibly obtuse, even suicidal.

In a September 12, 2002 speech he delivered before President Bush spoke to the UN about Iraq, Nobel Peace Prize winner and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke about the need for member nations to strengthen and respect the rule of law. He emphasized the need to create and embrace international institutions and mechanism to further the rule of law, to respect international borders, to avoid unilateral military interventions, and to increase reliance on mechanisms for peaceful resolution of international disputes. We needed international law, he said, not unilateral lawlessness.

I think that is a huge part of the alternative vision to which we turned a blind eye after 9/11, and it is that vision that is sorely missed today. In Iraq, we’ve done just the opposite, and the results have been catastrophic. We have supported the same policies in Palestine and Lebanon, and both countries are on the verge of civil wars. But our President is asking for more without explaining where it ends, why it won’t lead to further disaster.

When the President announces his escalation strategy today, I hope there will be at least some who will ask him, “tell me how this ends. And which vision does it serve?”

UPDATE 1:30 EST: In a Reuters Report, US officials now claim that there have been no additional US air strikes in Somalia since the original Specter gunship attack.

Today’s photo was borrowed from a Christy post, November 21, 2006.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley