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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Five Years Later

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Posted March 20, 2008

We’ve hit the 5-year mark. This week, the politicians, the ex-politicians, the hawks and the doves are having at all of the should haves, could haves and would haves. Most of the stuff I read settled on the conclusion that we made some stupid-ass mistakes and fucked everything up, but at least we took out Saddam. There were a lot of anti-war protests going on yesterday, but many still think we should continue the fight.

In a speech at the Pentagon yesterday, President Bush said the surge is definitely working. “Because we acted the world is better and the United States of America is safer,” he said. “The gains we’ve made are fragile and irreversible, but on this anniversary, the American people should know that since the surge began, the level of violence is significantly down, civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down.” This success, he added, has made the war worth the “high cost in lives and treasure.”

On Tuesday, V.P. Dick Cheney visited Baghdad and declared that, “If you reflect back on those five years, I think it’s been a difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor.” He added that, “it’s been well worth the effort.” He forgot to mention that the war has been extremely deadly. The day earlier, 50 miles to his south, 43 civilians were killed and 58 injured in a bombing near the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala.

Yesterday, on “Inside Iraq,” a blog written by Iraqi journalists who work for McClatchy Newspapers, Correspondent Jenan shared his thoughts. Five years ago, he wrote, “I had big dreams, large hopes of salvation from what we were live with Saddam regime.” But, “I discovered that I was deceived and now I believe the old saying the devil that you know is better than the devil that you don’t know

Last Sunday, the New York Times presented us with an op-ed collection of experts who muse about “one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wished they had considered in the prewar debate.” L. Paul Bremer III, the former envoy to Iraq, acted as though he was more of an observer and less of a high-level bureaucrat who wielded utmost authority: “Our soldiers were magnificent in liberating Iraq. But after arriving in the country, I saw that the American government was not adequately prepared to deal with the growing security threats.” Check out the piece the Times ran the next day. Days into Bremer’s service, he and his top deputy rammed through their grandiosely stupid bill to dissolve the Iraq Army despite the fact that a plan already existed to incorporate the army into the newly occupied Iraq. Most people these days think of this policy error as the main reason those “growing security threats” grew so quickly.

Slate is a little more aggressive than the Times with the wording of their 5-years-on coverage, posing a blunt question to the liberal hawks, folks like Jeffrey Goldberg and columnist Fred Kaplan: “Why did we get it wrong?”

Kanan Makiya – the author of Republic of Fear, who in 2002 told President Bush, V.P. Cheney, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that “Iraqis would greet Americans with sweets and flowers” and who, on the night of Saddam’s overthrow, sat in the Oval Office and wept – wrote on Slate that he “underestimated the self-centeredness and sectarianism” of people like his pal Ahmad Chalabi, another prominent Iraqi exile and leader of the Iraqi National Congress. In The Assassins’ Gate, journalist George Packer depicts Chalabi as a wealthy, smooth-talking charlatan. But Makiya had the wacky vision that Chalabi could lead the vanguard of a new, democratic Iraq. On Slate, Makiya wrote that he underestimated a lot of things and has plenty of regrets. But, “I still do not know how to regret wanting to knock down the walls of the great concentration camp that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.” He asked a bunch of questions. He even ended on one.

Top conservatives at the Weekly Standard seem crestfallen, if still defensive.

Influential editor William Kristol, who even through the worst has remained the staunchest Iraq war supporter of all, brought up the very reason we went to war in the first place: the threat of WMDs. A Defense Department analysis of 600,000 Iraqi government documents recently, it concludes, “found no ‘smoking gun’ (i.e. direct connection) between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda.” After a flurry of news reports based on this damning quote from the report, Kristol wrote, “the Bush administration reacted with an apparently guilty silence.” He proceeds to accuse the report’s executive summary of being “extraordinarily misleading.”

Jules Crittenden, an editor for the Boston Herald who was embedded with the troops during the first push into Baghdad, wrote in the perfunctory “Five Years On” piece that the Iraq war is but a chapter in our fight against terrorism. But, “In fact, all we’ve managed to do as a nation over six-and-a-half years of war is confuse ourselves.”

The most on-the-mark piece I saw came from Christopher Hitchens, the cantankerous Vanity Fair columnist and liberal-hawk. On Slate, he took the long historical view and outlines America’s deeply unsettling – deeply, deeply unsettling – foreign policy relationship with Iraq’s Ba’th Party and Saddam Hussein.

If you take all that into account, Hitchens suggests, the war – including the overthrow of Saddam, the elections, the recuperation of the devastated marshlands in the south of Iraq, and the “battlefield defeat inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates” – actually looks like the best moral option. “March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons. This must, and still does, count for something.” Hitchens has a point. It counts for something. It’s just too bad that, every year, that something will grow progressively more insignificant in the face of continuing bloodshed.

There are lots of short pieces by NY Times reporters and photographers on their blog “Baghdad Bureau.” Ian Fisher writes about a newfound optimism among the troops, a result of the so-called surge. Sgt. First Class Donal Muthena, from the Third Infantry Division, tells him, “This time, all my vets say the same thing: This is the most satisfying deployment we have been on.”

Many people aren’t convinced. Anti-war demonstrations went down yesterday in “Washington and Elsewhere,” the NY Times announced early yesterday. The Washington Post reported that even their own offices were a target. In the capitol, there were some incredible demonstrations. About 100 people froze in place for ten minutes at Union Station. 60 or so members of Code Pink carried a “living-room size copy of the preamble to the Constitution” down Constitution Avenue. And in the city, as I was writing this, a MoveOn.org candlelight vigil was held in Madison Square Park.

The dark question still lingers in me about what we should do in Iraq in the future. What is, truly, the American responsibility? We can’t just leave – even if the troops are gone, those HESCO housing containers and concrete blast barriers, plus the biggest U.S. Embassy in the world, won’t just disappear. And the civil war will evolve and grow. Whenever I think of the possibility of an immediate withdrawal, what Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker told the NY Times last July comes to mind: “In the States, it’s like we’re in the last half of the third reel of a three-reel movie, and all we have to do is decide we’re done here, and the credits come up, and the lights come on, and we leave the theater and go on to something else. … Whereas out here, you’re just getting into the first reel of five reels, and as ugly as the first reel has been, the other four and a half are going to be way, way worse.”

Kanan Makiya has a point. I’m beginning to find that, more often than not, the debate over the war ultimately returns to the pursuit of new and different questions. We all see that escape might prove to be just as amoral an option as invasion. The question of American responsibility remains fixed in reality; it always will. Let’s proceed with that question on our minds.

Photo: Standing on a lightbox in front of the IRS building in Washington, D.C. By Jacob Cunningham, courtesy United For Peace.

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Written by Peter Holslin

March 16, 2008 at 9:05 pm

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