In 1968, Richard Nixon promised "peace with honor" in Vietnam using Eisenhower and Korea as his model. Nixon's promise of an honorable peace contributed heavily to his election as President. Instead our last memory of Vietnam is a helicopter lifting off a rooftop in Saigon. The symbolism couldn't have been clearer: America was impotent and forced to retreat.
This week, the President made a speech at the United States Naval Academy, which the media portrayed as a watershed moment because he rolled out a plan. To further reinforce that they know what they're doing, the Administration made this plan available to the public in a PDF document.
One reads much of the same rhetoric we've heard before in the thirty-eight pages. Declaring any timetable is a sign of weakness to the enemy and only emboldens the terrorists. Failure is not an option because the stakes are so high. On page 18 the Administration boasts, "Iraqis have hit every political benchmark in their transitional political process – and are on track to hit the next one: elections in December to select a four-year government under a democratic constitution, with full participation from all of Iraq’s main ethnic and religious communities."
All of which reads nice enough and in fairness to the Administration, Ambassador Negroponte has performed ably in facilitating dialogue among the disparate ethnic and religious groups. Furthermore, one can expect a concentrated effort of security on December 15th, as was the case in April. For one day in December at least the Iraqis may enjoy a day of order and hopefully no bloodshed. One had to be moved by the millions of determined Iraqis courageously risking their lives to cast ballots in April. I expect no less a display on December 15th and it really puts us Americans who don't vote too shame for our cynical apathy.
Nevertheless, it appears to me that President Bush and the body politic are disconnected from reality. The Administration's incompetence has put us in the following conundrum: the Iraqis are incapable of resisting the insurgents by themselves but our presence is the catalyst for the insurgency. With recruitment levels at all time lows and our forces stretched thin, the occupation isn't sustainable. Yet our withdrawal may facilitate further calamity and disruption in the region. Withdrawal is also dishonorable as I previously wrote on November 20th. A pre-mature pullout means Iraq becomes Lebanon redux - only worse. Stay and our military is bogged down in a conflict we will never prevail in because the definition of victory is amorphous. If victory means, "we'll stand down when the Iraqis can stand up" I don't see how we can leave anytime soon - if ever.
The statistics the Bush Administration cites about Iraqi battalions ready to lead and take control is reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's Pentagon hyping body counts during Vietnam. During his speech, President Bush boasted that 40 Iraqi battalions led the fight against the insurgents in Tal Afar earlier this year. Yet Time magazine's Michael Ware who was embedded with the U.S. military during the Tal Afar battle told CNN, "With the greatest respect to the President, that's completely wrong." He further noted that, "I was with Iraqi units right there on the front line as they were battling with Al Qaeda. They were not leading." Most ominously, Mr. Ware revealed to CNN that: "I had had a very senior officer here in Baghdad say to me that there's never going to be a point where these guys will be able to stand up against the insurgency on their own."
How can we believe anything the Bush Administration has to say about Iraq? They claim to promote democracy but an indispensable component to a free society is an independent press. Now we're learning that the military manipulated the content of newspaper coverage in Iraq. To the average Iraqi citizen how is this any more credible than what their newspapers reported under Saddam Hussein? Of course the Bush Administration also purchased favorable news coverage of its education policies in the United States so expecting them to genuinely promote a free press in Iraq may be a stretch.
Page 20 of the Administration's glorious PDF document says: "The United Nations is also playing an important role in Iraq’s political transition, and plans to expand its capacity with hundreds of personnel located throughout the country. The Arab League, the European Union, and other important regional actors are all engaged and working to support the Iraqi political process." I seem to recall UN personnel fleeing for their lives from Iraq as the U.S. military struggled to preserve order. A viable international presence doesn't seem possible given the reality on the ground.
Sadly, I think Congressman Murtha's proposal is the only way to go. I take no pleasure in writing that. Ideally we all want peace with honor but the Bush Administration has made that impossible. A redeployment over six months as Murtha has proposed is both sensible and a reflection of reality. Congressman Murtha is renowned for having a special relationship with the Pentagon. I doubt he just pulled this proposal out of thin air. I think it likely it reflects the consensus and conventional wisdom of the military brass that are in the know. Publicly they have to reflect the Administration's views. Privately they told Mr. Murtha the truth.
What about the Administration's argument that timetables only serve to embolden the enemy? Well, they're already emboldened. As long as we're there it is impossible for moderate political forces to achieve a separate identify from American occupiers. Furthermore our presence exponentially increases the recruitment of terrorists.
Either way, whether the insurgents ultimately take power or continue to wreck havoc from the sidelines, Iraq appears headed toward becoming a base of worldwide terrorism just as Afghanistan did after the CIA left the country when the Cold War ended. Unlike what happened with Afghanistan in the nineties however, Murtha's proposal makes it possible to maintain a quick strike force that can put out terrorist brush fires and hopefully contain such a menace within Iraqi borders. This is not a perfect solution. At times we will be at odds with sovereign Iraqi power whenever we move in and take out an Iraqi terrorist cell. Also with every incursion it will reinforce the notion that the Iraqi government truly cannot stand on their own.
But that is better than a status quo of being occupiers in a land that doesn't want us there. It's also better than doing nothing as terrorists use Iraq to export and expand their operations. The best we can hope for is implementing a policy of containment inside Iraq's borders - and Murtha's redeployment plan makes that more possible. Hopefully, a quick strike force outside of Iraq but mobolized to act on a moment's notice can at least buy a newly elected government time to consolidate their institutions and get their bearings. It's not peace with honor. But it is reality and that's what is needed now.