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Debating The Delusion of Victory

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All last week we watched the House debate and pass, and then the Senate vote not to debate, a non-binding resolution that simply said (1) Congress supports the troops but (2) Congress does not support the President's troop escalation plans. In the meantime, the escalation is happening, regardless of the voting. By the end of the week, the carnage in Iraq had resumed after a brief two-day lull in which only scores were killed, instead of the usual hundreds, and a dejected Harry Reid was telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the Iraq war was "the worst foreign policy mistake in the history of this country."

Democrats have struggled with how best to respond to the principal argument of the resolution's opponents, that the resolution and threatening to withhold funding for additional troops would embolden the enemy and undermine the troops by not sending the reinforcements they need, and thus undercut the prospects for victory in Iraq. But of course, the issue has never been about whether we should provide whatever our troops need; Democrats have supported that principle from the beginning, demanding better armor, more training, workable equipment and acceptable rotations — all of which Jack Murtha's next proposed resolution would demand; they've also called for a more supportive political and economic strategy, and accountability for contractors; they argued that we needed more troops in the early stages, over Rumsfeld's objections. The Democrats have nothing to apologize for on this issue.

Rather, the issue has always been whether the troops have been ordered on a mission the American people can and should support. We need a debate about whether they should be there, and if so, why and what for, and whether that mission is achievable. That, I believe, is the point of Senator Biden's suggested approach in reexamining the war's authorization. All the talk about "supporting the troops" is a rhetorical and often demogogic distraction from that central question. If we can't define a mission that is both worthwhile and achievable, then it is not clear how "victory" is achieveable or even whether it should be attempted.

An important but probably little noticed article in Sunday's New York Times, "Iran's Chance: US Troubles In Iraq Create Opening for Regional Shift" addresses this core issue. The article provides an analysis of the huge degree of Iranian influence in Iraq that our invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime facilitated. The Bush Administration achieved this result simply by allowing the large Shiite majority, many of whom feel a sectarian kinship to Iran's predominantly Shiite population and are sympathetic to the fundamentalist regime in Iran, to replace Saddam's minority Sunni/Baathist regime that was both secular and openly hostile to Iran. Of course, that result was both predictable and predicted by some, none of whom get invited to be Sunday's talking heads, but the media never fully spread these views to the American poeple.

The article points out what is obvious to those in the Middle East but often ignored in the US-centric debates about our policies there:

CAIRO, Feb. 17 — In recent weeks, President Bush and American military officials have increasingly accused Iran of meddling in Iraq’s affairs. But from Iran’s perspective, given its longstanding interests in Iraq, it is the United States that is meddling in its backyard, analysts inside and outside of Iran say.

The article reminds us that the Iraq government's foundation is fundamentally pro-Iranian: the Dawa Party of Prime Minister al-Maliki and the major Shiite group SCIRI are closely allied to Iran, and many of SCIRI's militia have been trained by the Iranians. Numerous Shiite leaders in the current government lived in exile in Iran for years to escape Saddam's regime. The US nemesis, Moktada al-Sadr, supported by the large Mahdi Army, is also at least friendly towards Iran and has traveled often to Iran, though he is arguably more Iraq nationalist in his views.

The article cites extensive historic, cultural and religious links between the two countries; thousands of Iranians annually trek to Shiite holy sites in Iraq. And there are emerging economic ties that Iran is building in Shiite areas and intends to exploit. And why wouldn't they?

Those links to Iran’s religious and revolutionary identity, combined with the presence of American troops in Iraq and thousands of NATO forces in Afghanistan, are more than enough justification for Iran to try to counter American influence next door, political analysts in the region said.

“It is not logical to have an American presence in Iraq, and Iran sitting passively, waiting for the formation of an anti-Iranian Iraqi government,” Mr. Atrissi said. “From the Iranian perspective, Iran is a country defending its national security.”

The obvious take away from this article is that almost everything the Bush invasion and occupation have done has allowed Iran and the Iraqi government to move closer. The Bush policy is to build an Iraqi regime to counter Iranian influence and be more sympathetic to whatever the Administration sees as US interests. But this notion seems hopelessly delusional.

If the Administration's objectives relating to Iran are unrealistic, what of its hopes for achieving stability and democracy in Iraq? And won't sending more US troops to Baghdad help achieve these goals? Here again we see the same delusional theme emphasized in last week's Washington Post Op-ed, "Victory is Not an Option," by William Odom. Odom is a retired general and former head of Army Intelligence and Director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan. He discusses four main reasons why the Bush/Cheney/neocon definition of, and hope for "victory" are delusional:

Too many lawmakers have fallen for the myths that are invoked to try to sell the president's new war aims. Let us consider the most pernicious of them.

1) We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon. Reflect on the double-think of this formulation. We are now fighting to prevent what our invasion made inevitable! Undoubtedly we will leave a mess — the mess we created, which has become worse each year we have remained. Lawmakers gravely proclaim their opposition to the war, but in the next breath express fear that quitting it will leave a blood bath, a civil war, a terrorist haven, a "failed state," or some other horror. But this "aftermath" is already upon us; a prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists.

2) We must continue the war to prevent Iran's influence from growing in Iraq. This is another absurd notion. One of the president's initial war aims, the creation of a democracy in Iraq, ensured increased Iranian influence, both in Iraq and the region. Electoral democracy, predictably, would put Shiite groups in power — groups supported by Iran since Saddam Hussein repressed them in 1991. Why are so many members of Congress swallowing the claim that prolonging the war is now supposed to prevent precisely what starting the war inexorably and predictably caused? Fear that Congress will confront this contradiction helps explain the administration and neocon drumbeat we now hear for expanding the war to Iran.

Here we see shades of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy in Vietnam: widen the war into Cambodia and Laos. Only this time, the adverse consequences would be far greater. Iran's ability to hurt U.S. forces in Iraq are not trivial. And the anti-American backlash in the region would be larger, and have more lasting consequences.

3) We must prevent the emergence of a new haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But it was the U.S. invasion that opened Iraq's doors to al-Qaeda. The longer U.S. forces have remained there, the stronger al-Qaeda has become. Yet its strength within the Kurdish and Shiite areas is trivial. After a U.S. withdrawal, it will probably play a continuing role in helping the Sunni groups against the Shiites and the Kurds. Whether such foreign elements could remain or thrive in Iraq after the resolution of civil war is open to question. Meanwhile, continuing the war will not push al-Qaeda outside Iraq. On the contrary, the American presence is the glue that holds al-Qaeda there now.

4) We must continue to fight in order to "support the troops." This argument effectively paralyzes almost all members of Congress. Lawmakers proclaim in grave tones a litany of problems in Iraq sufficient to justify a rapid pullout. Then they reject that logical conclusion, insisting we cannot do so because we must support the troops. Has anybody asked the troops?

[snip]

But the strangest aspect of this rationale for continuing the war is the implication that the troops are somehow responsible for deciding to continue the president's course. That political and moral responsibility belongs to the president, not the troops. Did not President Harry S. Truman make it clear that "the buck stops" in the Oval Office? If the president keeps dodging it, where does it stop? With Congress?

So why are the Democrats having a tough time explaining this? A Glenn Greenwald post Sunday suggests that they need to learn how to talk about the issue and not cede ground to the neocon nonsense. Glenn covers an interview/exchange General Odom had with Hugh Hewitt, in which Odom bats away every neocon confusion Hewitt can throw at him. Read Glenn's post to see how it's done.

Finally, Firedoglake's Siun recommended an excellent British television documentary on how reporting of the war inevitably avoids showing its horrible realities, and thus contributes to the support for war. C&L has now posted a link and you can watch it there. Caution: It runs about 48 minutes and is sometimes strong stuff, so make sure you've got plenty of time to see it through. I may have more on this later in the week.

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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

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