Opinion » Ted Rall

The Case For Defeatism

Why Harry Reid was right

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NEW YORK--"I believe ... that this war is lost," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Obviously he's right (and overdue). Amend that: he was right. Within 24 hours, Democrats were backpedaling, stampeded by the usual onslaught of scorn and pseudo-patriotic outrage from Fox-fed GOP dead-enders. "What Harry Reid is saying is that this war is lost ... The war is not lost," Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer clarified, less than brilliantly.

A letter to the editor of a small paper in Maryland encapsulated the hawks' strident anti-defeatism. "Reid should be asked to resign his position as majority leader and also as senator," wrote one Al Eisner. "Such disgraceful and defeatist comments represent a total abandonment of our brave troops fighting the war against terror and will only embolden the enemy." Don't speak ill of the dead, or of their doomed cause! The enemy, meanwhile, has already booked the banquet hall for next year's victory celebration.

We haven't just lost in Iraq. For a lot of the same reasons, the U.S. war against Afghanistan was doomed before it began.

"No one in the administration has ever said what victory would actually look like [in Iraq]," neoconservative pundit Shelby Steele claimed on The Wall Street Journal's hawkish editorial page. "Without a description of victory, a war has no goal." On the other hand, a war without a purpose can't be lost.

The trouble is, Bush did define what victory in Iraq would look like. By Bush's standards, we lost.

"[Iraq] possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons," he told a crowd in Cincinnati four months before the war. "It is seeking nuclear weapons ... If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today--and we do [sic]--does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?" If the U.S. invasion force had found stockpiles of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons in Iraq, we could have claimed victory. Although critics would have remained disgusted with the sleazy origins of this roll-the-dice war, we would have been forced to concede that Bush had validated his policy of pre-emption.

If throngs of grateful Iraqis had greeted our troops as liberators (the staged psy-ops downing of the Saddam statue by U.S. marines and 150 of Ahmed Chalabi's goons doesn't count), the war would have ended in a victory, albeit not the one we were promised.

By late 2003, it had become clear that neither of Bush's war aims would be achieved. Iraq was, by definition, lost. Only one option remained to slap a good face on a debacle that had already killed several hundred thousand Iraqis: take credit for getting rid of Saddam and get out.

"The United States has removed a tyrant it helped to install and maintained in power for decades," Bush would have said, had I written his "Mission Accomplished" speech. "Now we will withdraw our forces and allow the sovereign and free people of Iraq to build their future without foreign interference. We ask nothing for ourselves, but we stand ready to help them--no matter what form of government they ultimately choose--if they ask. We offer our deepest apologies and our best wishes."

The U.S.-run show trial of Saddam, his despicable tribal-led lynching, and Halliburton-led war profiteering destroyed our chances for even this consolation-prize finale.

Our war aims for Afghanistan, now forgotten, were clearly defined in 2001. We wanted to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and depose the Taliban, depriving al-Qaida of its base of operations. In fairness, both goals were unachievable. Al-Qaida's base of operations was in an entirely different country--Pakistan--as was its elusive leader.

Not that it gives much comfort to the 3,600 American soldiers who have been killed or the 27,000 who have been wounded, but our wars against Afghanistan and Iraq never stood a chance. Throughout the bloody history of the 20th century, no nation was successfully invaded. Every occupier ultimately withdrew.

Adding to the historically daunting odds against success were a war plan drawn up by an administration so inept that it couldn't react to a hurricane during hurricane season, and an army whose strategy and tactics were diametrically opposed to those required for counterinsurgency operations.

No one wants to fault the troops for the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. But in truth, the military--from the lowliest private to General Tommy Franks--has to bear much of the responsibility.

If, as neoconservatives allege, WMDs were smuggled across Iraq's borders (most likely to Syria) during the initial chaotic weeks of the war, the evidence that could have validated the war was lost due to the military's failure to secure the borders. Iraqis who would otherwise have thanked U.S. troops for freeing them from Saddam's tyranny were greeted by hostility and violence. "Iraqis passed us on the road slowly and patiently," wrote Tony Lagouranis in his new book Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq: "We kept our guns trained on them as they moved through. This was our first close-up look at these people, and it was not a friendly exchange. Their stares were full of wonder at why they were under our guns, mixed in with a bit of disgust at our overreactions."

After the Baathist regime fell, the army's job was to provide soldier-policemen to maintain order. But, writes Lagouranis: "Force protection was our number-one priority. Everywhere I went, Americans were hunkered down and on alert, quick to point a gun at an Iraqi, quick to use it. Our primary preoccupation was not with rebuilding the country, but with keeping danger at bay; not with providing security for Iraqis, but with making sure that we were safe inside our bubble." Iraq needed cops. It got trigger-happy suburbanites.

It doesn't matter that most soldiers didn't participate in an atrocity. After a single soldier did, just once, the battle for hearts and minds was irreparably lost.

And it wasn't just one bad apple. Alberto Gonzales constructed a legal justification for torture. Donald Rumsfeld signaled the troops that it was OK. But no one forced hundreds of sadists at Abu Ghraib or Bagram or Guantanamo to sodomize and murder countless innocent detainees. They did it by choice, while thousands of other soldiers stood by and watched.

Harry Reid should stand by his statement: The war is lost. Winning isn't on the table in Iraq. Neither is damage control. Genocide and civil war, and perhaps balkanization into smaller ethnic-enclave states, will almost certainly tear Iraq apart--with or without a U.S. troop presence. In Afghanistan and Iraq, defeatism is a synonym for realism.

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