Commentary - Election on Iraq

Get it Right or Get Out

NOTE: The following essay appeared as a "Viewpoint" piece in the July 28, 2006 edition of the Eagle-Tribune newspaper.


The U.S. in Iraq


Nearly the whole thrust of this year’s Congressional elections’ season should be viewed as completion of a debate on our Iraq policy that has only begun. The one in Congress of two years ago was debate-lite, never up to the weight of its conclusion -- the decision by Congress to hand over their Constitutional authority to declare war to the President. Congress dropped the ball and followed President Bush like lemmings over the Iraqi cliff. So the key question for voters is whether they are looking at candidates who ask the tough questions and would rock the boat in Congress to get the answers we need -- candidates like incumbent U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R, OK) and U.S. Senate challenger Steve Laffey (R, RI). Most of incumbents who voted for the War Resolution should be dumped. They have demonstrated disability -- to act as watchdogs and whistleblowers in the public interest, or to fight for those who elect them.


What’s the #1 “tough” question? It’s this: Do the many mistakes we’ve already made in Iraq disable us from winning? This is the question that the 2006 Congressional elections will serve to answer for better or for worse. For the answer right now is “It depends.” It depends on the American people, on whether they are willing -- in spite of the errors of those in Washington -- to go the distance in Iraq and make the sacrifices needed to achieve victory. If they are, we can still get it right. If not, we need to get out.


Here in NH we are a microcosm of America facing this question. Apart from a number of crucial questions of concern to NH voters, it is the #1 question on Iraq that our Congressional delegation has failed to help us ask and address, let alone answer. Recall the old saying: “If you don’t ask the right questions, you’ll never find a right answer.” So it’s been with our Iraqi policy. We have at least two of the many Congressional lemmings here in our own state. Trouble is, their election opponents aren’t doing any better. Let’s face it: With respect to Iraq, we voters continue to be treated like mushrooms: Keep them in the dark and feed them s---! We have been misled, misinformed and uninformed by President Bush, our Representatives in Congress and the media.


Thus, we lack the information that we need as voters, to form considered opinions on the #1 question and to assess what candidates are saying about Iraq. The judgment that this columnist, who has worked in Iraq, has come to is that if we are not willing or able to learn from our mistakes and significantly increase the resources devoted to the war in Iraq, then we had better set a timetable for withdrawal. The good, underreported work by Special Forces, Marine Civil Battalions and others indicates that we can “get it right.” We have started to learn from our mistakes and apply the lessons. Unfortunately, this may be “too little, too late,” for we continue to make the #1 mistake that has plagued our intervention from the outset -- trying to win the war on the cheap. President Bush’s rationalization of this is that he is deferring to the Generals who are running things “on the ground.” Don’t Generals take orders from their Commander in Chief?


Two main facts of the matter are that (1) the war in Iraq is a political war both abroad and at home and (2) there are several parallels to Vietnam, whose lessons were ignored until recently. So, on (1), we would not have invaded Iraq if the Congress had not allowed the President to get away with flim-flam and questionable claims regarding WMDs, Iraq-Al Quaeda connections, Iraq as key to the war on terror, and a quickie war. Does this mean the President lied to us? No. He looked for information to justify his desire to take out Saddam, a desire that long preceded 9/11. He appointed people who would tell him what he WANTED to hear. Our Representatives in Congress, the people’s branch, have a Constitutional responsibility to be not so accommodating.


On (2), the President has made several avoidable mistakes. The major one is the same mistake made by Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam war -- acting as if the country could have “guns and butter” at the same time. President Bush’s response to the need of sacrifice by the country as a whole? -- Go shop! “On the ground” in Iraq, the military has applied another set of lessons: How to fight an insurgency in a war that is as much political as military. These applications have led to many localized successes.      


Trouble is, the successes continue to be “localized.” Why? Because we don’t have the numbers of Special Forces, Marines and other specialized resources to win the war all over Iraq and secure the country. Leading generals estimated the need for 300-500,000 troops. They were right both earlier and now. The shortage is not just a matter of numbers. Additional troops would need to be trained before they could be effectively deployed. The war in Iraq bears an eerie similarity to another war, the “War on Drugs.” We clear an area of druggies only to find that they move on to another place. For ex-ample, the Marines had to fight for Fallujah more than once because they didn’t have the manpower to remain there for an extended period while also having to fight terrorist-”insurgents” in other locations, leaving Fallujah open to terrorist infiltration once again.    
The fact that we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq in the first place doesn’t deny the burden of responsibility that we now have as a result of being there. The consequences of premature withdrawal could be very detrimental. These need to be identified and debated. We have a responsibility, first, to face facts, the main one of which is that the goals set forth for us by our President cannot be achieved without substantially greater sacrifices of blood and treasure over many years. Second, if we as a nation are not prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, we need to find a way to declare victory and get out. That which we have accomplished thusfar is not an illusion: We have brought about “regime change” and provided Iraqis with an opportunity to create a better future for themselves, democratically. That could be counted as “victory.” But we have been ill-served by our Congressional delegation on these critical concerns. Where are the candidates to do better? Will we ask them the really tough questions before voting on Nov.8th?


         PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., International Consulting Economist who has worked in Iraq, and author, We, The People ( 7/25/06

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