Sunday, June 22, 2014

The GOP on Iraq: They Made a Desert and Called It Peace

“It’s not like we haven’t seen over the last five or six months these terrorists moving in, taking control of Western Iraq. Now they’ve taken control of Mosul. They’re 100 miles from Baghdad. And what’s the president doing? Taking a nap!”—John Boehner (pictured), R-Ohio, Speaker of the House, during a news conference at the Capitol, quoted in John Parkinson, "John Boehner Slams President Obama for ‘Taking a Nap’ on Iraq,” The Note (ABC News), June 12, 2014

Somebody please tell John Boehner that, if he’s at all serious about what he says about Iraq, he’ll put down that golf club he loves so well, then pick up a rifle he can use over in Iraq. Barring that, he should stop his nonsense about what President Obama isn’t doing in that troubled nation that shows all signs of no longer being a “nation” in any sense in the future.

That talk about “taking a nap” is pretty rich, for instance, coming from a party that still venerates a Republican President of 30 years ago who was rather famous for the same pastime. (Yes, it was The Gipper whose practice of leaving the Oval Office by 2:30 pm each Friday for R&R ed the West Wing to schedule that slot as “Staff Time’—or, as some wags put it, “Staff Time for Bonzo.”)

But there are other problems with Boehner’s statement.

Let’s start with the ultimate responsibility for this situation, shall we? In a Vice-Presidential debate of 1976, Bob Dole raised many hackles by referring to “Democrat wars.” Leave aside the offense to grammar and examine his point: World Wars I and I, as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, began with Democrats in office.

If the GOP could cheer Dole for that statement, then surely turnabout is fair play, and the Democrats have more than enough right to refer to Iraq as a “Republican War.” It began under George W. Bush; in the House of Representatives, 213 out of 296 votes for the resolution authorizing Presidential use of force in Iraq came from Republicans; and in the early days of the war, when things appeared to be going swimmingly, GOP candidates, under the guidance of strategist Karl Rove, were not shy about bludgeoning Democratic opponents of the conflict, even ousting a wounded Vietnam War vet, Senator Max Cleland, in the process.

Second, the war did not end up going as advertised, has it? The Bush administration outmaneuvered, outmuscled, and, when all else failed, muzzled those who questioned whether enough troops would be available to secure Iraq, a country of 31 million people with traditions profoundly different from ours. One of these questioners was General Eric Shinseki, and GOP lawmakers must share responsibility for his mistreatment for not protesting his dismissal from command because of the issue. (They still couldn’t stand the knowledge that events proved him right—one of the reasons they made him the scapegoat for longstanding bipartisan failures at the Veterans Administration, when he joined the Obama administration to head the department.)

No, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, despite their longstanding conservative skepticism about government’s ability to do anything right, were sure that theirs could erect an island of pluralistic democracy in a region with nothing close to this tradition. It would be like Douglas MacArthur in Japan in 1945 all over again. MacArthur’s staff, however, not only planned for this contingency but proceeded to carry it out. In contrast, as James Fallows demonstrated in an article for The Atlantic Monthly a decade ago, the Bush administration went “Blind Into Baghdad” by ignoring the plans already in place. It was a case of let the chips fall where they may, the foreign-policy counterpart to the casino capitalism that would leave the American economy in tatters by the end of Bush’s second term.

For more than three years, the Bush administration ignored the tell-tale signs that disorder was spreading in Iraq. Their apologists, notably the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, point to the quiescent state achieved by 2009, after the removal of Rumsfeld at the Defense Department and the subsequent implementation of Gen. David Petreus’ “surge.” Everything that happened since then was Obama’s fault.

All of this constitutes history as wishful thinking.

The GOP, scenting blood in the water as they scan daily headlines about Obama’s poll standings, fevered by the thought of something else to bludgeon the President with besides Benghazi, online Obamacare, the IRS and the Veterans Administration, think they are going in for the kill on Iraq. In fact, they are engaged in massive overkill on this issue.

As someone with no particular brief for the GOP, but a strong believer in a two-party system, I can’t urge the elders of the Republican Party strongly enough to stop pursuing this avenue back to the White House.

Many in the party probably consider this as golden an opportunity as the “Who lost China?” debate ignited during the administration of Harry Truman. But the difference between the 1940s and this past decade reveals at a glance why the analogy is worthless.

The GOP could charge (albeit recklessly) that Truman and his State Department were responsible for the fall of China to the Communists because their party was nowhere within smelling distance of the White House for a generation—from 1932 to 1952—and, therefore, their fingerprints could be found nowhere on the corpse of the government of Chiang Kai-shek. But the first six, formative years of the Iraq War all took place under GOP auspices.

One Republican who has failed to draw the proper lessons of history is, not surprisingly, Dick Cheney. Dubya, having painted his successor into a diplomatic and economic corner, is, to give him credit, content now to stick with real brushes and canvasses and not make a noise on every occasion. Not so his Veep. This past week, in an op-ed piece (co-written with daughter Liz) for The Wall Street Journal that bids fair to become the most overheated pronouncement by any White House official in the last century, Cheney writes: “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”

Leave aside the cheap-imitation Churchillian rhetoric. Even leave aside (though it’s going to be harder) the idea of a man who requested and received five student deferments in the Vietnam War deciding events 40 years later “at the expense of so many.” No, what is galling (no other word remotely suffices) about all of this is that, after being loudly, completely, and repeatedly wrong about the course of events a decade ago in Iraq, Cheney expects to be taken seriously a decade later. But then again, this is the same man who, though never seeing a second of combat himself, told his boss that refusing to pardon aide “Scooter” Libby on perjury and obstruction of justice charges was like “leaving a soldier on the battlefield.”

You would expect liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne to call Cheney out on this. But the surprise last week was Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who, following her smackdown of Karl Rove’s delusional Presidential election predictions a year and a half ago, has now burnished her reputation as the one figure at her cable colossus who, at least once in a blue moon, is willing to say that the pronouncements of some conservatives are simply too rich for her blood.

"Time and time again, history has proven that you got it wrong as well in Iraq, sir,” Kelly told Cheney on the air last week. “You said there was no doubt Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. You said we would be greeted as liberators. You said the insurgency was in its last throes back in 2005, and you said that after our intervention, extremists would have to 'rethink their strategy of jihad.' Now, with almost a trillion dollars spent there, with almost 4,500 American lives lost there, what do you say to those who say you were so wrong about so much at the expense of so many?"

In their eagerness to lambaste Obama, Cheney, Boehner and much of the rest of their party have conveniently forgotten one major player: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Where do you start with his follies? With the decision to push the U.S. out of his country, without any treaty provision that would leave even a residual American military force? With a turn toward the Islamist regime in Iran, the longtime enemy of his nation? With the alienation of his nation’s Sunnis? With human-rights violations that sound like another Saddam Hussein in embryo? (As Amnesty International listed them, as summarized by Justin Marozzi for The Huffington Post: “peaceful protesters shot dead, thousands of detentions, hundreds of death sentences after unfair trials, dozens of executions, torture and ill treatment ‘rife.’”)

The result of all these actions by al-Maliki, the man whose name the Republicans dare not say? After a decade in which Americans tried assiduously to train them to take over the defense of their own country, more than 200,000 active-duty Iraqi soldiers crumbled in the face of a mere 4,000 fighters with The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). It is like the slew of South Vietnamese leaders who squandered U.S. lives and largesse in the Vietnam War through their own corruption and incompetence, leaving a force that crumbled within a couple of years after the last American soldier went home.

I am not much of a fan of President Obama. He was far too timorous about reforming the excesses of Wall Street after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, and fumbling the rollout of online Obamacare mercilessly exposed his managerial failures. He has only one real saving grace, though it is not minor in the current crisis: his small-minded political enemies (after all, they regard him as such, rather than as a rival) make him look far larger and more adult by comparison.

For 20 years after the onset of the Great Depression, Americans judged GOP performance in relation to that economic calamity as so wanting that they did not elect a Republican for President. Shouldn’t a similar dismal performance in the Oval Office on a comparable horror show in the foreign-policy realm warrant a similar judgment today?

The ancient historian Tacitus depicted a barbarian leader rallying his soldiers by warning them of the consequences if the Romans won: “They make a desert and call it peace.” At this point, it’s fair to say that the Republicans have made a desert and called it Iraq.

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