By Ray McGovern 10/30/06

When President George W. Bush was asked at his news conference last Wednesday whether we are winning in Iraq, he answered, “Absolutely; we’re winning.” The disingenuousness was almost enough to provoke sympathy for the beleaguered president as he lived through another bad week with further diminished credibility.

A letter winner in cheerleading at Andover and Yale, the president knows how tough it is to keep spirits up when it becomes clear that his team is not winning, but the bedlam in Iraq has become the supreme test. Some of his fellow cheerleaders have quit cheering, and even the Fox News Channel is having trouble putting on a brave front.

And small wonder. For example, on October19 USA Today put the main challenge succinctly:

The mistaken war and botched aftermath have created such a mess that the only credible course change must be predicated on this painful question: Is there an achievable goal that makes the further sacrifice of American lives worthwhile? With each passing day, that is looking less and less likely. … What, exactly, is the goal that U.S. forces are fighting and dying for?

Is it to referee a civil war in Iraq? At the press conference Bush said:

Our job is to prevent the full–full-scale civil war from happening in the first place. It is one of the missions, is to work with the Maliki government to make sure that there is a political way forward that says to the people of Iraq, It’s not worth it. Civil war is not worth the effort–by them…And so we will work to prevent that from happening.

Is that it? Or is it, as the president let slip, to prevent “terrorists or extremists in Iraq [from gaining] access to vast oil reserves” in Iraq and denying them to the U.S. How often were we told that oil had “nothing to do with it!”?

The president did say that too many children “won’t ever see their mom and dad again,” and that he owes it “to them and to the families who still have loved ones in harm’s way to ensure that their sacrifices are not in vain.”

He owes to people like the family of Jeremy Shank. In a small town in Missouri last month, Rev. Carter Frey eulogized young Shank, who was killed while on patrol in Iraq. Frey stressed that Shank was one of those who “put themselves in harm’s way and paid the ultimate sacrifice so that you and I can have freedom to live in this country.”

Really? Many patrols like the one Shank was on appear to be aimed at stopping Shia and Sunni from killing each other–stopping what the president calls “full-scale civil war.” Two months ago Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley told the press, “It’s no longer about insurgency, but sectarian warfare.” Is that what Jeremy Shank and other young men and women are paying the ultimate sacrifice–or the penultimate one of living the rest of their lives without arms or legs?

What else could be their purpose? To continue the pursuit of evidence of weapons of mass destruction or ties between Iraq and al-Qaida? Or is it really, as the Bush administration suggests, to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq and the wider Middle East? Really? How long will we let our young soldiers be mocked and used? How long will we allow President Bush to treat them as disposable soldiers–like toys a rich kid gets for Christmas?

Time To Bring Them Home

There are basically two choices: (1) “stay the course” (or the same concept with a more felicitous label); or (2) withdraw. Let’s look at them both:

(1) Those of us who have “been there, done that” know what is meant by “stay the course”–or whatever updated formulation the Bush administration uses that implies action short of withdrawal. Its name is Vietnam. It means more violence month by month–as we have witnessed recently–until there are 50,000 more of our young troops, and a million more Iraqis, dead. From the president’s own words we know his intention is to keep our troops in Iraq until the end of his term. A year or two later, our helicopters will be lifting the remainder of the American presence in Iraq off the rooftops of the billion-dollar embassy we are now building in the Green Zone. The name is Vietnam. It is a no-brainer for anyone who knows the first thing about “insurgency”–or, more properly, resistance to foreign occupation. More and more violence–guaranteed.

(2) Withdrawal: It is more difficult to predict what will happen if we withdraw our troops from Iraq over the next year or so. A lot depends on how we go about it. The steps outlined below, the result of brainstorming with my colleagues with Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) and others, would in my view hold the promise of much less violence and killing:

(a) Show a modicum of respect for the opinions of the Iraqi people, two-thirds of whom want U.S. forces out of Iraq immediately, according to a recent poll commissioned by our Department of State. It seems the height of hubris and incongruity for U.S. officials to pretend, as they do, that they know far better what would be best for the Iraqis. Another poll had 60 percent of the Iraqi people saying they would shoot an American on sight, if they had the opportunity.

(b) Publicly disavow any intention of having permanent–or as the Pentagon now prefers to say “enduring”–military bases in Iraq.

(c) Publicly disavow any intention of having special rights over the oil under the sands of Iraq. (These last two steps will be difficult for the Bush administration, since those aims formed the bulk of the motivation for attacking and occupying Iraq.)

(d) TALK. Yes, talk. It is bizarre that the Bush administration does not let the State Department talk with “evil” forces–like North Korea, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and (perish the thought) “insurgents” in Iraq. If Ronald Reagan could talk with the Evil Empire, and conclude very important arms control and other agreements, surely the George W. Bush administration can engage resistance forces in Iraq. The Arab League states have shown themselves eager to facilitate such discussions. Indeed, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did precisely that in October 2005, when he invited all interested states and factions to a meeting in Cairo. The U.S. boycotted those talks, and made it difficult for its clients in Baghdad to attend.

Following these four steps would attenuate the violence and damage that can be expected, however well-planned our withdrawal. Most importantly, then–and only then–we can expect the Arab League countries, the United Nations, the Western Europeans, Indians, Pakistanis and others to do what they can to facilitate our withdrawal with as much grace as can be mustered at that point. Why? Because they like us? No; we have frittered away the strong support rendered us in the wake of 9/11. They will help because most of them have even more interest than we in a more stable Iraq–and just as much interest as we in the oil there.

Bottom line: It seems virtually certain that there will be more violence in “staying the course.” That being the case, it can no longer be a moral decision to say, in effect: Let’s let those kids from the inner cities and the farms stay the course for us; who knows, maybe they’ll be lucky!

I cannot resist the temptation to recall that all of this was entirely predictable–and predicted. Almost exactly a year ago we took strong issue with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s insistence that the war in Iraq was “winnable.” We noted at the time that “most of those with a modicum of experience in guerrilla warfare and the Middle East are persuaded that the war is NOT winnable and that the only thing in doubt is the timing of the U.S. departure.”

When will they ever learn; when will they ever learn?

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst from the administrations of John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush. He now works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.