During the past two weeks more than 30 American servicemen died in Iraq, and this month is shaping up to be the deadliest month of the entire war. The casualties add to a dismal reckoning that now exceeds 2,000 Coalition dead and 15-20,000 wounded. The unofficial count, by knowledgeable people who say the Government is not telling it like it is, amounts to more than twice that number of American dead and wounded, and more than ten times those numbers of Iraqi dead and wounded, who are not included in any official tally. That is to say nothing of the thousands on both sides who already are or will become psychological basket cases from this experience.
The statistics for Gulf War I, tabulated by the Veterans Administration in 2002, suggest that, while initial casualties were light, the casualties of that War ultimately exceeded 30%. Gulf War II is and has been a far more hairy experience. Fighting has been heavier and much more prolonged. Many tons more of depleted uranium weapons have been use, along with other toxic devices. Thus, a long term casualty rate for American forces of 40-50% appears realistic.
Has the engagement been worth it? Should we stick around to see how it finally turns out? In the end, will we be able to say that the outcome was worth 60-70,000 damaged, distorted or destroyed American lives, to say nothing of the effects on their families and communities?
Available facts today are against a positive answer to that question. Based on everything we have learned from real experience with the invasion and occupation–from the Downing Street Memo and following publications and admissions–neither the Bush team nor the British leadership either could or chose to see clearly into Iraq on the first day.
Are they able to see the way out? The view at this moment suggests they cannot.
Start with the global security situation. The most blatant indications of failure to see that situation is the thought, expressed by Tony Blair on the day of July 7 London bombings, and echoed by George W. Bush, that we are under attack because of our way of life. That is true only in the grimmest form of the observation: What we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, tolerating in Palestine, and perpetrating in Guantanamo and numerous other prison locations looks like our way of life, and that way of life is deeply resented and opposed by millions of people. We are fortunate only that so few of them choose to react violently. The attackers are not trying to wreck our home life. They want us to stop destroying theirs.
Will the situation improve quickly? So long as there is a shooting war going in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so long as the human rights and dignity of thousands of men and women are abused by the United States as they now are, the prospects of peace are virtually nil. And the chance that some of the people who are now angry enough to try to kill some of us will cease and desist is zero. Having created a new generation of terrorists, we will experience more terrorism.
We won’t necessarily know who some of those people are until it is too late, but the disturbing truth may be that there is now no turning back for some of them, no matter what we do. We will pay, and no war on terrorism can prevent that from happening, somewhere, somehow, sometime.
Can we do something about it? There are many things that would help. For example, several members of Congress, including John McCain and other Republicans, are pushing legislation to restore American observance of international law and our own military regulations on the treatment of prisoners. Ominously, the regulations are said to be in the process of being rewritten in the Pentagon. Provisions to restore US observance of international law and our own well-established practices have been added to a major spending bill that Bush has threatened to veto if they remain in the bill. Supporters of the President on this say basically that he is above the law, anybody’s law. That announces to the world that the failures reported at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere were not due to a few bad apples, but were brought on by the highest levels of American policy, and US leadership remains unreconstructed on this issue.
Is presidential prerogative really at issue here? There is nothing in the Constitution or the United States Code that says the President is above the law. As the Chief Executive of the United States, one of the leading responsibilities of the President is to see that the law of the land is carried out. His oath of office says he faithfully will do that. In effect, the President’s position on observing established US laws and treaties on torture says he willfully abdicates his responsibility as President of the United States in order to be the nation’s chief advocate of cruel and unusual punishment for people who have not even been brought to trial. The President’s attitude on this and that of his supporters makes a moral and legal travesty of the American presidency. It simply cannot be a prerogative of the President to ignore established laws.
How does that bear on getting us out of Iraq? One of the hardest things about making peace is persuading the protagonists that the time for battle is over. People do remember that they were mauled, their homes and towns destroyed, their family members confined, tortured, and denied human rights. The longer that goes on, the more vivid is the recall. And if some die, others tend to remember for them. The peace, if it comes, is always troubled by such recollections, and the people who recall are seldom ever able to go after the real perpetrators. Thus, they go for softer targets. Communities, families, individual victims pay for the failures of leadership. The resultant instability makes it appear to leaders who are otherwise disposed anyway that they have no choice but to “stay the course” to “maintain the peace.” They refuse to concede that they may be the reason peace does not prevail. That illusion sustains enduring occupation, which feeds enduring conflict.
Bush reiterated that position this week. Faced by a growing, but only morally armed group of Cindy Sheehan supporters outside his gate at Crawford, Texas, and surrounded by his war cabinet, Bush called the growing mayhem in Iraq “a grim reminder of the brutal enemies we face in the war on terror.” And he pleaded with an increasingly skeptical America to support his “stay the course” strategy.
But what is the Iraq reality? Both President Bush and Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair keep pushing their basic theme that there is no connection between chaos in Iraq and attacks or risks of terrorist attacks in the west. We went into Iraq allegedly to liberate a people who would be grateful for the freedom from Saddam Hussein. From the beginning, our people on the ground found that few Iraqis approved of the invasion. That disapproval gradually morphed into an insurgency in and around Baghdad that now covers the bulk of northwestern Iraq and breaks out sporadically in both the south (Shi’a territory) and the north (mainly Kurdish territory). A certain number of outsiders also disapproved and went to Iraq to fight with the insurgents, perhaps in some instances to make their own mayhem.
The effort to liberate Iraq bogged down. More Iraqis joined the fray, by some reports, creating not one but several insurgencies. The US set out to train Iraqi forces to take over the task of defeating the insurgencies and maintaining public order. The US lead in this effort, however, never diminished because the Iraqis did not seem capable or, for that matter, willing to fight their own people, unless the situation turned to outright communal violence. Now the US has more than a mythical tar baby to deal with. Because the US remains in the lead, the Iraqis being trained, as well as officials who are running the interim government and drafting a new constitution, are widely if not uniformly tainted by the US connection. The insurgents attack them as well as the Coalition–mainly the American–forces. US efforts are then strengthened to train more Iraqis to take over, and in the meantime, American forces are stuck there, under siege.
A US promised democracy has become Iraqi against Iraqi. The US is training Iraqi forces to defeat Iraqis who do not want the American or other Coalition forces there. What this does is deepen and reinforce divisions among Iraqis that, in the Iraqi ethnic triad, were already simmering, and in some locations appear to be coming to a boil. In effect, people the US injured, tortured, killed or insulted by occupation increase in number every day, and the objectors, including the living victims and the relatives of the dead, take out their anger and frustration on Americans and Iraqis who are visibly affiliated with Americans. The Bush team is now saying the US can see itself withdrawing—at least partially—from Iraq when and if the Iraqis are able to contain the insurgency that is fueled by the US presence. That is a classic oxymoron.
The chances that such an outcome will occur while the US remains in Iraq are nil. It is hard to see your way out of a situation if you will not face the real nature of the situation. Bush and Blair have thoroughly confused the issues in their own minds, and they are increasingly at odds with the people of their countries. But the tragedy of it is that training Iraqis to kill or punish, i.e., imprison other Iraqis, or Afghans to kill or confine other Afghans is merely setting these societies against themselves.
The situation needs to be turned as quickly as possible into one in which the US is not fighting the Iraqis, and neither are Iraqis. Expecting the Iraqis to bludgeon themselves into a democratic society is preposterous. The present conflict can only be resolved by turning the whole matter over to a UN peacekeeping force that does not contain any Americans, and that does not continue to set the Iraqi people against each other.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and former Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He is a regular columnist on rense.com. He will welcome comments at firstname.lastname@example.org