Saturday, September 30, 2006

The biggest scandal of them all...

I’m going to say something painfully obvious, something that any honest and informed citizen will agree with: the Iraq War is an appalling failure. More than that, the Iraq War will likely be remembered as one of the most profound, dangerous and cruel errors my country has ever blundered into. A lot of people say that Iraq is another Vietnam, and maybe they’re right. Much more depressing, however, is the possibility that Iraq might also be our Algeria. The chance for “victory”, however hollow or fake or temporary, has passed. The moment where optimism could be anything besides a stupid delusion has passed. Now we’ve reached the time where the only choice left open to us is how long we’re going to go on bleeding into the desert.

The few shrill supporters of Bush’s war that steadfastly refuse to give up their delusions like to argue that their opponents are in favor of caving in, that by rejecting their President’s course we will only show our weakness to those who hate us. It would be an unacceptable capitulation to terror and creeping fanaticism if the U.S. ever again shrinks before the enemy. We abandoned Somalia after taking casualties, after all, and hasn’t Bin Laden used that as proof that the most powerful nation in the world is, under its bluster, actually timid and decadent? We can’t retreat again, their logic goes, because the only way we can hope to prevail in this conflict is by discrediting them, by showing these murderous jihadis that American power will crush them no matter how long it takes, no matter how many casualties they inflict, no matter how painful the process may be. We cannot blink or waver or “cut and run”, otherwise our enemies will win and, if they win, our lives will forever be menaced by their medieval code and their lack of mercy.

This point of view is almost correct. If we left Iraq tomorrow, the jihadis would consider it a justification of their methods and—it is likely—their entire worldview. What we have created in Iraq is a situation similar to the one that gave birth to Al-Qaeda in the first place: for all our sophistication and technological superiority, it may be that we’re doomed to act out a remake of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. There, as in Iraq, extremists from across the Muslim world came to test their mettle against the infidel superpower. There, as in Iraq, the superpower was put in the position of propping up a fragile government against a baffling array of insurgents. There, as in Iraq, the superpower eventually had to make the hard decision as to whether to withdraw or to stay and continue to suffer an increasingly untenable situation. The Soviet Union was never going to turn Afghanistan into a friendly socialist state, yet some among us continue to believe that the U.S. can work an even trickier miracle in Iraq. We can only hope that it doesn’t take us as long to come to our senses.

So, yes, if we leave Iraq the terrorists will clap their hands and mock us as a pathetic paper tiger. It will be a very bad situation. We will enter into an uncertain, intimidating new world. But—and here’s the crucial point—we are already plunging blindly into that world. And we’re plunging into it with one hand tied behind our backs. As the situation now stands, there can be no “victory” in Iraq. Because what kind of victory depends on a permanent occupation? What kind of victory is contingent all our various enemies deciding not to attack us anymore? What kind of victory can we muster when there’s no state left to surrender to us, no ground for us to conquer, no declarations for us to sign and yet our soldiers and their civilians still die by the dozens every day? The question shouldn’t be decided as a matter of national pride—of “sticking it out” and proving America’s greatness—the question should be decided on the basis of what’s best for our country, their country, the region and the world. We are an economic giant, a military giant, and a free society. They are crazy theocrats. We disgrace ourselves by even suggesting that we need to save face in front of such people.

So leaving Iraq isn’t a solution that will usher in a new era of peace and global stability. It seems stupid to quibble about that when, in every reality but the Bush cult’s, the invasion of Iraq was one of the events that put peace and global stability into jeopardy in the first place. We don’t get to live in a world free of terror and religious fundamentalism, not yet we don’t. It’s awful, but it’s the way it is. I hear a lot about how important it is to “get serious” about terrorism. It usually comes up when some candidate, usually Republican, wants to pose as a tough guy in front of our scared and ignorant electorate. It is a doomed country that equates jingoism with “seriousness”. If we were serious about terrorism, we wouldn’t be watching the Taleban reform in Afghanistan. If we were serious about terrorism, we wouldn’t be talking about attacking Iran as a way of bringing it to heel. If we were serious about terrorism, we’d wouldn’t stand by and watch Israelis and Palestinians and Lebanese kill each other in the service of a ghastly status quo.

What’s needed isn’t more of the same political “seriousness”, which is basically just another buzz word intended to lend gravitas to the people who have been nothing but wrong since this century began. Instead, what we need is intelligence. America does not call the shots for the rest of the world. This is not an unpatriotic, hippie-dippie thing to say at all. It’s just the way it is. We’re a great power, we’re not omnipotent. If there’s one thing we ought to learn from our awful Babylon adventure, it’s that our authority and abilities have limits. We cannot decide that the Middle East should become an avalon of democracy and pro-business governments and then just send our military in to make it so. We cannot decide that people shouldn’t blow things up in the service of a scary medieval mindset and then simply bomb those people until they stop. We’ve seen that this only deepens the impasse. No, if we want democracy in the Middle East and an end to violent fundamentalism, we have to be subtler, we have to crafty, we have to be intelligent.

But we don’t want to be. We want to sleep safe at night underneath the blanket of unending American power. The American middle-class wants to fill up at the gas station for cheap, to cast their vote for the most comforting daddy, to have their wars fought for them by the kids of strangers. They want to live in a dying dream world, this bubble where we can have it all and not worry about where it came from or how it got to us, where God smiles on our cul-de-sac, where the spoils are ours but the sacrifices are always someone else’s.

So when I hear someone howling that only cowards want us to “cut and run”, I agree with them. Only a coward would want America to cut and run from its responsibilities and take up the futile pursuit of a cheap chimera. Only a coward would ask us to cut and run from the world’s gaping wounds so that we can all go back to hiding under the threadbare skirts of our mortgaged prosperity. Only a coward would ask us to cut and run away from the hard decisions affecting humankind so that the mistakes of the past can fester into true atrocities. Only the worst kind of coward wants to cut and run from our best traditions and the rule of law in favor adopting the savagery of our enemies.

Those enemies, of course, are real. For the most part, they are weak and beneath us. Terrorists cannot destroy America. Only we can destroy America.