Perhaps it is too much to ask that President Bush just once try to be a little more realistic about what is going on in Iraq and the prospects for that nation becoming what he has defined as “free.” But if he was ever going to soberly address the enormous problems facing the Iraqi people and government - problems that must be addressed before we can claim any kind of “triumph” - he might not have been able to find a friendlier, more receptive audience than yesterday at the VFW Convention in Kansas City.
Bush delivered a well written speech to the supportive group of vets, touching all the familiar bases about 9/11, al-Qaeda, and the need for supporting General Petreaus and our military. But the closest he came to acknowledging the extraordinary challenges facing the Iraqi government was here:
A free Iraq is not going to be perfect. A free Iraq will not make decisions as quickly as the country did under the dictatorship. Many are frustrated by the pace of progress in Baghdad, and I can understand this. As I noted yesterday, the Iraqi government is distributing oil revenues across its provinces despite not having an oil revenue law on its books, that the parliament has passed about 60 pieces of legislation.
Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man with a difficult job, and I support him. And it’s not up to politicians in Washington, D.C. to say whether he will remain in his position — that is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy, and not a dictatorship. (Applause.) A free Iraq is not going to transform the Middle East overnight. But a free Iraq will be a massive defeat for al Qaeda, it will be an example that provides hope for millions throughout the Middle East, it will be a friend of the United States, and it’s going to be an important ally in the ideological struggle of the 21st century. (Applause.)
There is no “pace of progress” with regards to political reconciliation in Iraq. There is, quite simply, no progress at all. And it might be an arguable point that Iraq is, in any sense of the word, a democracy - not when 15% of the population is frozen out of power sharing and hunted down like animals to be slaughtered.
That latter point is the direct result of Mr. Maliki’s inability (or unwillingness) to do anything about the Shia death squads inhabiting the Interior Ministry of his own government as well as their enablers on the Iraqi police force and in the army. The symbiotic relationship between Mr. Maliki’s government and the thugs, militia men, and criminal gangs that make life in the Capitol and elsewhere a living hell for ordinary Iraqis (while giving him the support he needs to maintain his position) will never be addressed as long as the President of the United States keeps his mouth shut about them.
Not a word in the President’s speech about the British withdrawal from the south which has already precipitated a civil war within a civil war between rival militias for control of that vital area. The hand of Iran is most prominent here and there is little doubt that the mullahs will try their best to back the winner in this conflict thus giving them effective control of nearly one third of the country.
And what of our friends, the Kurds? They recently threw in their lot with the Shias by signing a power sharing agreement that froze the Sunnis out of effective representation in Baghdad. Hailed by Maliki as a triumph, the agreement is a recipe for disaster in that it gives the Sunni insurgents a reason to fight on.
I could go on with the familiar litany of catastrophes waiting to happen, missed opportunities, “beat the heat” vacations by the parliament (which never has a quorum to pass anything anyway), the inexhaustible supply of insurgents and their sympathizers - numbered in the hundreds of thousands by our own military - and the hopelessness of most ordinary Iraqis about the security situation.
Does all of this overshadow the genuine progress being made against al-Qaeda as well as some encouraging news about some of the Sunni tribes switching sides? I think any rational, fair minded person who doesn’t have a partisan agenda would have to agree that despite the relative success of the surge to date, the daunting task to make Iraq “free” and achieve any kind of “victory” remains a pipe dream.
The most controversial part of the President’s speech came when he warned against a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq leading to another “Viet Nam” aftermath. Here, the President is on firmer ground - except if you’re a reporter for the New York Times:
In urging Americans to stay the course in Iraq, Mr. Bush is challenging the historical memory that the pullout from Vietnam had few negative repercussions for the United States and its allies.
The speech was the beginning of an intense White House initiative to shape the debate on Capitol Hill in September, when the presidentâ€™s troop buildup will undergo a re-evaluation. It came amid rising concerns in Washington over the performance of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, who has made little progress toward bridging the sectarian divide in his country.
I had to read that amazing passage about our pullout from Viet Nam having “few negative repercussions for the United States and its allies” several times before I could believe it. Is the Times actually trying to argue that there were no “negative repercussions” for Thailand or Cambodia, both of them close US allies at the time? And the fact that the collective security group, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, was destroyed by our pullout from Viet Nam didn’t have repercussions for the United States itself? Or that our pull out didn’t damage our ability to deter the Russians?
Our mad rush out of Viet Nam certainly emboldened the Soviet Union to meddle in Africa by using their flunkie Castro as a proxy in Angola as well as giving direct aid to groups like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the El Salvador rebels. To say that our pull out didn’t have negative repercussions for the US or many of our allies is insane.
The President spelled out what some of those “negative repercussions” were:
The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.
There was another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today’s struggle — those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September the 11th, 2001. In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden declared that “the American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today.”
I think the New York Times, as most on the left in this country, have failed to come to grips with their abandonment of Southeast Asia to the communists. They have washed their hands of the bloodbath that followed, saying it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone in militarily in the first place. That is pure sophistry. The aftermath of Viet Nam - like the aftermath that will occur in Iraq - would have been manageable if we hadn’t pulled out so precipitously and completely. If we had made it clear to the North that bombing would have resumed the moment they reneged on the treaty and if we had kept a substantial residual force in Viet Nam with the promise that our troops would return if they broke the peace agreement, I doubt very much that Saigon would have fallen.
Now this position was not politically viable at the time. Ford was hamstrung by Congress in protecting the South from the North’s cynical refusal to abide by the Paris accords. The result was catastrophe.
Can we avoid a similar fate in Iraq? No one knows. But this quote from an unarmed official commenting on a much more pessimistic report than the President gave to the vets, highlighting the dire situation we face over the next 9-12 months seems to sum it up for both Democrats and Republicans alike:
The new report also concludes that the American military has had success in recent months in tamping down sectarian violence in the country, according to officials who have read it.
The report, which was intended to help anticipate events over the next 6 to 12 months, is â€œmore dire in its assessmentsâ€ than the administration has been in its own internal discussions, according to one senior official who has read it. But the report also warns, as Mr. Bush did on Wednesday, that an early withdrawal would lead to more chaos.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t take a policy position,â€ one official said. â€œBut it leaves you with the sense that what weâ€™ve been doing hasnâ€™t been working, but we canâ€™t let up, or itâ€™ll get worse.â€
If that doesn’t sober up both supporters of the war and those who wish a quick exit from Iraq, then nothing will.