Wayne M. O’Leary

Staying Forever

The American presence in Iraq has gone in a matter of months from being a tragic mistake to something resembling an exercise in sheer lunacy. George W. Bush has dragged the country through the looking-glass into the realm of the surreal, and we’re all trapped in a wonderland of delusion and doublespeak that even a Lewis Carroll would have trouble describing. The Mad Hatter himself could be setting policy.

First, there was the so-called surge, activated last spring, which established the obvious: If you insert thousands of additional America troops into a selected region of Iraq (say Baghdad), the insurgent resistance will temporarily melt away, keep its powder dry, and either pop up somewhere else or return to its original domain once Americans have withdrawn. Some semblance of order can be established for the short run, but only with an overwhelming numerical dominance that cannot possibly be maintained or replicated countrywide. The surge is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; there is the illusion of progress and improvement without its actuality. No problem for the Decider, who enthused to Australian hosts on a September visit Down Under, “We’re kicking ass in Iraq.”

Along with the surge, but separate and apart from it, came the widely hyped “Anbar Awakening,” the Sunni tribal uprising in Anbar province against al Qaeda in Iraq, the native rump faction inspired (but not directed) by Osama bin Laden’s broader movement. This was hailed as an administration triumph, even though the administration had nothing to do with it. The Anbar Awakening was a spontaneous reaction to the thuggish hangers-on who attached themselves to the Sunni insurgency — they comprise less than 10% of it — and then alienated it by carrying out an indiscriminate killing spree against local Iraqi civilians.

The awakening actually preceded the American surge and will continue long after Americans depart, as Iraqis put their house in order. It’s something Saddam Hussein would have sponsored had he survived, and it denotes neither a love for the US, nor an acquiescence in the US occupation. Yet, in the blinkered Bush perception, it is the functional equivalent of the flowers that were never strewn in the paths of our invading troops.

Then, there was September’s report by David Petraeus, which the entire Congress and media establishment awaited with breathless anticipation, despite knowing (unless dementia had set in) exactly what it would say. Having accepted the premise that General Petraeus was all-seeing and all-knowing when it came to guerrilla warfare, the Democratic majority could not reject his rosy appraisal of the situation in Iraq. Some expressed shock and dismay that the general would view the surge as successful and advocate, in effect, staying the course. What did they expect? With a career on the line, no ambitious military officer would voluntarily admit to failure.

Naturally, the president was delighted. He should have been, since his staff vetted the general’s report. The surge was working so well, it turned out, that a “withdrawal” could actually begin. Here, the doublespeak shifted into overdrive; we would withdraw by augmenting. That is, Petraeus would draw down troop levels by 30,000 within 10 months, leaving 130,000 Americans in country, the same number that had been there prior to the surge. Simple mathematics: Add 30,000 in 2007, reduce 30,000 in 2008; add the surge, subtract the surge, and stay for the duration. This conveniently allowed our blissful leader to enunciate the immortal Return on Success doctrine. In his very own words, “The more successful we are [by adding troops], the more American troops can come home.” Alice heard comments just as logical during her excursion through Wonderland.

The translation of all this gibberish amounts to a virtual promise that we’re staying in Iraq, if not forever, then for a reasonable approximation of forever. None other than the senior counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. Petraeus, David Kilcullen, estimates that a successful counterinsurgency movement requires a minimum of 10 years. That places us in the vicinity of 2017. (Even most of the Democratic presidential candidates have signed off on 2013.) And Kilcullen cautions that such an operation is open ended. Ten years worked in British Malaya, but Iraq might take longer. With that in mind, the Bush administration’s request for an additional $190 billion plus for the war and occupation over the next fiscal year, bringing total spending to more than $650 billion ($10 billion a month, give or take), begins to make a kind of twisted sense.

Meanwhile, our British allies are pulling out. Their Iraq contingent, which peaked at 45,000, will drop by early next year from the current 5,000 to about 2,500. That’s an overall reduction of 95% since the drawdown began. No fools the British. Uncle Sam, stuck in Alice’s rabbit hole, has another idea: privatize the US Army. According to some sources, there are presently 180,000 private military personnel in Iraq earning up to $20,000 per month, a force bigger and far more expensive than the regular army. Blackwater USA, the most infamous of the contract firms employing them, has billed taxpayers $1 billion since 2001 for providing boots on the ground to a defense establishment running on fumes. Too bad the Blackwater mercenaries shoot first and ask questions later, giving new meaning to the phrase the Ugly American.

While Blackwater has been winning hearts and minds, the great sage of our time, Alan Greenspan, has been explaining the higher purpose of Bush’s mad tea party. “The Iraq war is largely about oil,” pronounced the sainted Alan in his new memoir — to dumfounded silence for the most part. The white rabbit is finally out of the hat. Why now, five years after the fact? Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. But there’s more. In the Senate, Connecticut’s mournful Mock Turtle, Joe Lieberman, has shepherded through a non-binding (but highly flammable) resolution, with the help of Hillary Clinton and a majority of her Democratic colleagues, designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organization. The president’s prominent ears have no doubt perked up. There may be more strolls through looking-glasses and down rabbit holes ahead.

In the end, we’re left with one last Lewis Carroll image that sums it all up: the grinning visage of the Cheshire Cat. Slowly, the cat disappears, leaving only the disembodied grin — or is it a smirk?

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2007

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