Sunday, November 20, 2005
One War Lost, Another to Go
From The NY Times
By Frank Rich
IF anyone needs further proof that we are racing for the exits in Iraq, just follow the bouncing ball that is Rick Santorum. A Republican leader in the Senate and a true-blue (or red) Iraq hawk, he has long slobbered over President Bush, much as Ed McMahon did over Johnny Carson. But when Mr. Bush went to Mr. Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania to give his Veterans Day speech smearing the war’s critics as unpatriotic, the senator was M.I.A.
Mr. Santorum preferred to honor a previous engagement more than 100 miles away. There he told reporters for the first time that “maybe some blame” for the war’s “less than optimal” progress belonged to the White House. This change of heart had nothing to do with looming revelations of how the new Iraqi “democracy” had instituted Saddam-style torture chambers. Or with the spiraling investigations into the whereabouts of nearly $9 billion in unaccounted-for taxpayers’ money from the American occupation authority. Or with the latest spike in casualties. Mr. Santorum was instead contemplating his own incipient political obituary written the day before: a poll showing him 16 points down in his re-election race. No sooner did he stiff Mr. Bush in Pennsylvania than he did so again in Washington, voting with a 79-to-19 majority on a Senate resolution begging for an Iraq exit strategy. He was joined by all but one (Jon Kyl) of the 13 other Republican senators running for re-election next year. They desperately want to be able to tell their constituents that they were against the war after they were for it.
They know the voters have decided the war is over, no matter what symbolic resolutions are passed or defeated in Congress nor how many Republicans try to Swift-boat Representative John Murtha, the marine hero who wants the troops out. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey last week found that the percentage (52) of Americans who want to get out of Iraq fast, in 12 months or less, is even larger than the percentage (48) that favored a quick withdrawal from Vietnam when that war’s casualty toll neared 54,000 in the apocalyptic year of 1970. The Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, writing in Foreign Affairs, found that “if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline.” He observed that Mr. Bush was trying to channel L. B. J. by making “countless speeches explaining what the effort in Iraq is about, urging patience and asserting that progress is being made. But as was also evident during Woodrow Wilson’s campaign to sell the League of Nations to the American public, the efficacy of the bully pulpit is much overrated.”
Mr. Bush may disdain timetables for our pullout, but, hello, there already is one, set by the Santorums of his own party: the expiration date for a sizable American presence in Iraq is Election Day 2006. As Mr. Mueller says, the decline in support for the war won’t reverse itself. The public knows progress is not being made, no matter how many times it is told that Iraqis will soon stand up so we can stand down.
On the same day the Senate passed the resolution rebuking Mr. Bush on the war, Martha Raddatz of ABC News reported that “only about 700 Iraqi troops” could operate independently of the U.S. military, 27,000 more could take a lead role in combat “only with strong support” from our forces and the rest of the 200,000-odd trainees suffered from a variety of problems, from equipment shortages to an inability “to wake up when told” or follow orders.
But while the war is lost both as a political matter at home and a practical matter in Iraq, the exit strategy being haggled over in Washington will hardly mark the end of our woes. Few Americans will cry over the collapse of the administration’s vainglorious mission to make Iraq a model of neocon nation-building. But, as some may dimly recall, there is another war going on as well – against Osama bin Laden and company.
One hideous consequence of the White House’s Big Lie – fusing the war of choice in Iraq with the war of necessity that began on 9/11 – is that the public, having rejected one, automatically rejects the other. That’s already happening. The percentage of Americans who now regard fighting terrorism as a top national priority is either in the single or low double digits in every poll. Thus the tragic bottom line of the Bush catastrophe: the administration has at once increased the ranks of jihadists by turning Iraq into a new training ground and recruitment magnet while at the same time exhausting America’s will and resources to confront that expanded threat.
We have arrived at “the worst of all possible worlds,” in the words of Daniel Benjamin, Richard Clarke’s former counterterrorism colleague, with whom I talked last week. No one speaks more eloquently to this point than Mr. Benjamin and Steven Simon, his fellow National Security Council alum. They saw the Qaeda threat coming before most others did in the 1990’s, and their riveting new book, “The Next Attack,” is the best argued and most thoroughly reported account of why, in their opening words, “we are losing” the war against the bin Laden progeny now.
“The Next Attack” is prescient to a scary degree. “If bin Laden is the Robin Hood of jihad,” the authors write, then Abu Musab al-Zarqawi “has been its Horatio Alger, and Iraq his field of dreams.” The proof arrived spectacularly this month with the Zarqawi-engineered suicide bombings of three hotels in Amman. That attack, Mr. Benjamin wrote in Slate, “could soon be remembered as the day that the spillover of violence from Iraq became a major affliction for the Middle East.” But not remembered in America. Thanks to the confusion sown by the Bush administration, the implications for us in this attack, like those in London and Madrid, are quickly forgotten, if they were noticed in the first place. What happened in Amman is just another numbing bit of bad news that we mentally delete along with all the other disasters we now label “Iraq.”
Only since his speech about “Islamo-fascism” in early October has Mr. Bush started trying to make distinctions between the “evildoers” of Saddam’s regime and the Islamic radicals who did and do directly threaten us. But even if anyone was still listening to this president, it would be too little and too late. The only hope for getting Americans to focus on the war we can’t escape is to clear the decks by telling the truth about the war of choice in Iraq: that it is making us less safe, not more, and that we have to learn from its mistakes and calculate the damage it has caused as we reboot and move on.
Mr. Bush is incapable of such candor. In the speech Mr. Santorum skipped on Veterans Day, the president lashed out at his critics for trying “to rewrite the history” of how the war began. Then he rewrote the history of the war, both then and now. He boasted of America’s “broad and coordinated homeland defense” even as the members of the bipartisan 9/11 commission were preparing to chastise the administration’s inadequate efforts to prevent actual nuclear W.M.D.’s, as opposed to Saddam’s fictional ones, from finding their way to terrorists. Mr. Bush preened about how “we’re standing with dissidents and exiles against oppressive regimes” even as we were hearing new reports of how we outsource detainees to such regimes to be tortured.
And once again he bragged about the growing readiness of Iraqi troops, citing “nearly 90 Iraqi army battalions fighting the terrorists alongside our forces.” But as James Fallows confirms in his exhaustive report on “Why Iraq Has No Army” in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, America would have to commit to remaining in Iraq for many years to “bring an Iraqi army to maturity.” If we’re not going to do that, Mr. Fallows concludes, America’s only alternative is to “face the stark fact that it has no orderly way out of Iraq, and prepare accordingly.”
THAT’S the alternative that has already been chosen, brought on not just by the public’s irreversible rejection of the war, but also by the depleted state of our own broken military forces; they are falling short of recruitment goals across the board by as much as two-thirds, the Government Accountability Office reported last week. We must prepare accordingly for what’s to come. To do so we need leaders, whatever the political party, who can look beyond our nonorderly withdrawal from Iraq next year to the mess that will remain once we’re on our way out. Whether it’s countering the havoc inflicted on American interests internationally by Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo or overhauling and redeploying our military, intelligence and homeland security operations to confront the enemy we actually face, there’s an enormous job to be done.
The arguments about how we got into Mr. Bush’s war and exactly how we’ll get out are also important. But the damage from this fiasco will be even greater if those debates obscure the urgency of the other war we are losing, one that will be with us long after we’ve left the quagmire in Iraq.