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Last Gasps in Someone Else’s War

President Obama’s unscheduled stop [1] in Iraq yesterday not only put Iraq back above the fold, but found reporters and analysts rushing to creatively package it. A popular theme to emerge is that Obama’s brief surprise visit, featuring a speech to U.S troops at Camp Victory outside the airport (sandstorms reportedly prevented him from traveling to the Green Zone or anywhere else in the country) did not symbolize his taking “ownership” of “Bush’s war” but rather underscored that this war, at least U.S participation in it, is coming to an end.

From the Washington Post [2]: As president, he has set in motion a plan to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by late summer 2010. Traveling there Tuesday will draw attention to his commitment to end one of the most unpopular wars in American history, while giving him the opportunity to thank the military personnel for the sacrifices they have made there.

White House officials said the president added Iraq, rather than Afghanistan, to the end of his trip in part because of proximity — it was a short flight from Istanbul to Baghdad. But it allowed the president indirectly to remind voters of a campaign promise largely kept.

Indeed, Obama’s remarks to the troops did emphasize leaving, and by all news accounts, he was well-received (Bush, as one recalls, always was, too. Though the seemingly spontaneous “we love you” from one of the 600 in the crowd yesterday was a nice touch, as was the AP photo featuring commander-in-chief locked in a generous hug with a soldier). But ironically, Obama’s carefully scripted theme [3] (“it is time for us to transfer [control] to the Iraqis … They need to take responsibility for their country”), not only sounded like vintage Bush, but it too, is threatened by increasingly bloody complexities on the ground, much like when Bush would fly in for unscheduled visits to pump up the troops and assure everyone success was on track.

For instance, when asked about the spike in Baghdad violence so far this year (including 46 Iraqis dead and more than 150 wounded due to car bombs in the previous 24 hours alone), Obama appeared just as imperturbable and resolved as Bush to stay on message: “We should not get distracted” by the violence, he told reporters [4]in a joint appearance with Prime Minister Maliki, arguing that “our shared commitment is greater than the obstacles.”

Meanwhile, too, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates seemed uncharacteristically willing to put himself out on a rhetorical limb on Tuesday, suggesting with a whiff of the old guard [5] that the bombings have been the work of al Qaeda in its “last gasp,” [6] even though there has been no official conclusion that al Qaeda was even involved, gasping or otherwise. Some suggest that elements of a Baghdad Awakening Council are to blame (the Sunnis we had on our payroll to fight al Qaeda and who are now fighting openly [7] with our Shiite allies there), while others, like central government officials, see residual Baathists [8] as the convenient culprit. The fact is, while Obama and Gates seem resigned to play it down, most analysts agree that the tension between Sunni “Sons of Iraq” and Maliki’s Shia security forces has created a tinderbox that is increasingly difficult to ignore during this eager countdown to our withdrawal.

Not to mention the areas that have not been “tamed” by the so-called Surge. Places like Mosul and Baquba [9] have so far resisted the script, so much that Gen. Raymond Odierno, Commander of the U.S forces in Iraq, has recently offered interesting and somewhat cryptic views about whether the U.S can even fulfill the June deadline for withdrawal from the country’s urban centers. In one interview, Odierno suggested [10]U.S forces might stay in these cities if asked, and in another, suggested we might have to recommend it [11].

Furthermore, often ignored observers of the human toll continue to point to metrics [12] suggesting we are leaving behind a grim landscape, despite all the high talk about rebuilding, democratizing and the success of the highly touted Petraeus Doctrine. Unemployment for young men is hovering around 28 percent, while quality of life indicators, including ongoing displacement issues, a lack of sewage, potable water and electricity in many areas, should be quite horrifying — and unacceptable — to us in the so-called developed world.

President Obama may not “own” this war in an existential sense, but it is on his watch and no amount of media packaging or White House spin can avoid it for long. According to the aforementioned Washington Post analysis, Obama may indeed prefer we pay attention to his efforts in Afghanistan. Considering he had been an opponent of the Iraq invasion, and a proponent of refocusing on Afghanistan throughout his election campaign, this makes sense. It also makes sense that he would want to send a strong, supportive message to the some 130,000 military personnel in Iraq, and that his critics see him doing it — and with the kind of enviable photo finish that it ultimately provided.

But life it not that pat and Obama can’t choose his wars. Papering over the reality — that whether we stay or go at this point, we could be leaving behind a greater social and political disaster than when we arrived — does no one any good, not the American people who have made the sacrifice with blood and resources, and not the 29 million Iraqis awaiting their destiny. Dismissing daily carnage on the streets of Baghdad — isn’t anyone affected anymore when an infant is pulled from his dead mother’s arms [13] in a burning vehicle? — as mere “obstacles” to some greater, still-undefined success is dangerous, and I fear it does nothing to prepare us for any future reckoning in Iraq, or in Afghanistan for that matter.

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#1 Comment By Aaron On April 8, 2009 @ 9:36 am

But life it not that pat and Obama can’t choose his wars. Papering over the reality — that whether we stay or go at this point, we could be leaving behind a greater social and political disaster than when we arrived — does no one any good, not the American people who have made the sacrifice with blood and resources, and not the 29 million Iraqis awaiting their destiny.

Unfortunately, until humans develop the ability to see into the future, we’re faced with questions like that. Will leaving now make things better or worse? Will staying longer improve or worsen the chances of success (as we define it)?

The question of whether we’re horrified by any particular shocking scene from a war potentially depends upon (a) whether the media covers it, (b) who dropped the bomb, (c) our attitude toward a particular conflict, and (d) our attitude toward war in general. You can get the same person to respond to nearly identical incidents in one case with “That’s a horrific war crime that must be avenged,” and in another with, “They did their best to avoid civilian casualties, but they’re sometimes inevitable.” Is the incident you describe more tragic or more horrific if it’s caused by a car bombing, or if it occurs after soldiers fire upon a vehicle approaching a checkpoint in a manner they interpreted as hostile or suspicious? Or if it results from a rocket fired at a car of a suspected militant, that turns out to be full of innocent civilians, or to just contain his wife and kids?

#2 Comment By Kevin J Jones On April 8, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had recommended Iraq be named a Country of Particular Concern. However, recent reports on the outgoing Bush administration’s refusal to designate Iraq a CPC only mentioned that fact in passing.

It’s strange that this did not receive more attention. Is the USCIRF largely symbolic?

#3 Comment By bill On April 11, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

Pulling the troops out now or later will make little difference. The underlying hatred between Shiia and Sunni still exists and will erupt into violence at the slightest pretext. The country will descend into chaos until another strong man emerges and separates these two factions by force and brutality. democracy is a noble idea but it requires a certain political maturity that the Iraqi people seem to lack. The habit of relying on the “strong man” and the cult of personalty is hard to break. God knows we have seen enough evidence of that in our own hemisphere.