Please don't write in with a correction. I know just as well as you do that we're approaching the fifth, not the sixth, anniversary of the moment when, on March 19, 2003, George W. Bush told the American people:
"My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger... My fellow citizens, the dangers to our country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail."
At that moment, of course, the cruise missiles meant to "decapitate" Saddam Hussein's regime, but that killed only Iraqi civilians, were on their way to Baghdad. I'm perfectly aware that articles galore will be looking back on the five years since that day. This is not one of them.
Think of this piece as in the spirit of Senator John McCain's recent request that Americans not obsess about the origins of the Iraq War, but look forward. "On the issue of my differences with Senator Obama on Iraq," he typically said, "I want to make it very clear: This is not about decisions that were made in the past. This is about decisions that a president will have to make about the future in Iraq. And a decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iraq will lead to chaos."
The future, not the past, is the mantra, which is why I'm skipping next week's fifth anniversary of the Iraq War entirely. Now, let me ask you a future-oriented question:
What's wrong with these sentences?
On March 19, 2009, the date of the sixth anniversary of President Bush's invasion of Iraq, as surely as the sun rises in the East I'll be sitting here and we will still have many tens of thousands of troops, a string of major bases, and massive air power in that country. In the intervening year, more Americans will have been wounded or killed; many more Iraqis will have been wounded or killed; more chaos and conflict will have ensued; many more bombs will have been dropped and missiles launched; many more suicide bombs will have gone off. Iraq will still be a hell on Earth.
Prediction is, of course, a risky business. Otherwise I'd now be commuting via jet pack through spire cities (as the futuristic articles of my youth so regularly predicted). If you were to punch holes in the above sentences, you would certainly have to note that it's risky for a man of 63 years, or of any age, to suggest that he'll be sitting anywhere in a year; riskier yet if you happen to live in those lands extending from North Africa to Central Asia that Bush administration officials used to call the "arc of instability" -- essentially the oil heartlands of the planet -- before they turned them into one. It's always possible that I won't be sitting here (or anywhere else, for that matter) on March 19, 2009. Unfortunately, when it comes to the American position in Iraq, short of an act of God, the sixth anniversary of George Bush's war of choice is going to dawn much like the fifth one.
As a start, you can write off the next 10 months of our lives, right up to January 20, 2009, inauguration day for the next president. We know that, last fall, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was considering bringing American troop strength in Iraq down to 100,000 by the end of George Bush's second term. However, that was, as they evidently love to say in Washington, just a "best case scenario." Since then, the administration has signaled an end-of-July drawdown "pause" of unknown duration after American troop strength in Iraq, now at 157,000, hits about 142,000.
The President is clearly dragging his feet on removing even modest numbers of American troops. As he leaves office, it seems likely that there will be at least 130,000 U.S. troops in the country, about the same number as there were before, in February 2007, the President's surge strategy kicked in. In addition, in the past year, U.S. air power has "surged" in Iraq -- and continues to do so -- while U.S. mega-bases in that country continue to be built up. As far as we know, there are no plans to reverse either of these developments by January 20, 2009. No presidential candidate is even discussing them.
Any official "best case" scenario for drawdowns or withdrawals assumes, by the way, that the version of Iraq created during the surge months -- at best, an unstable combination of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, and American plans and desires -- remains in place and that Iraqi carnage stays off the front pages of American papers. This is anything but a given, as British journalist Patrick Cockburn reported recently in a piece headlined, "Why Iraq Could Blow Up in John McCain's Face." Indeed it could.
Best Case Scenarios
If Senator McCain were elected president, the American position in Iraq on March 19, 2009 will certainly be as described above -- and, if he has anything to say about it, for many anniversaries thereafter. But, when it comes to the sixth anniversary of the Iraq War, the truth is that it probably doesn't matter much who is elected president in November.
Take Hillary Clinton, she's said that she'll task the Joint Chiefs, the new Secretary of Defense, and her National Security Council with having a plan for (partial) withdrawal in place within 60 days of coming into office. Since inauguration day is January 20th, that means... March 21st or two days after the sixth anniversary; by which time, of course, nothing would have changed substantially.
Barack Obama has promised to remove U.S. "combat" troops at a one-to-two-brigades-a-month pace over a 16 month period. So it's possible that troop levels could drop marginally before March 19, 2009 in an Obama presidency, but again there is no reason to believe that anything essential would have happened to change that "anniversary."
In addition, the stated plans of both Democratic candidates, vague and limited as they may be, might not turn out to be their actual plans. Note the recent comments of Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Powers, who resigned after calling Clinton a "monster" in an interview with the Scotsman during a book tour. Since name-calling will always trump substantive policy matters in American politics, less noted were her comments in an interview with the BBC on her candidate's Iraq withdrawal policy. "He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator," Powers said and then she referred to Obama's plan as nothing more than a -- you guessed it -- "best-case scenario."
Similarly, a Clinton sometime-advisor on military matters, retired General Jack Keane, also one of the authors of President Bush's surge strategy, told the New York Sun that, in the Oval Office, "he is convinced [Hillary Clinton] would hold off on authorizing a large-scale immediate withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq." And Clinton herself, though less directly, has certainly hinted at a similar willingness to reconsider her policy promises in the light of an Oval Office morning.
So let's face it, barring an Iraqi surprise, the next year in that country may be nothing but a wash (and the lubricant, as in past years, is likely to be blood). It will be -- best case scenario -- a holding action on the road to nowhere, another woefully lost year in what has now become something like a ghost country.
The Children of War
To put this in more human terms: Imagine that a child born on March 19, 2003, just as Baghdad was being shock-and-awed, will be of an age to enter first grade when the sixth anniversary of George Bush's war hits. He or she will have gone from babbling to talking, crawling to walking, and will by then possibly be beginning to read and write. Of course, an Iraqi child born on that day, who managed to live to see his or her sixth birthday, might be among the two million-plus Iraqis in exile in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East, or among the millions of internal refugees driven from their homes in recent years and not in school at all. (Similarly, a child born on October 7, 2001, when the President first dispatched American bombers to strike Afghanistan, will be in second grade in March 2009; of course, seven-and-a-half years after being "liberated," an Afghan child, especially one now living in the southern part of that failed narco-state, is unlikely to be in school at all. As with Iraq, we could take some educated guesses about the situation in Afghanistan a year from now and they would be grim beyond words.)
For those children, the real inheritors of the Bush war era that is not yet faintly over, the Iraq War has essentially been the equivalent of an open-ended prison sentence with little hope of parole; for some Americans and many Iraqis, including children, it is a death sentence without hope of pardon. All this for a country which, even by the standards of the Bush administration, never presented the slightest national security threat to the United States of America. Only this week, an "exhaustive," Pentagon-sponsored study of 600,000 captured Iraqi documents confirmed, yet again, that there were no operational links whatsoever between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaeda.
With those children in mind, here's what's so depressing: In mainstream Washington, hardly anyone has taken a step outside the box of conventional, inside-the-Beltway thinking about Iraq, which is why it's possible to imagine March 19, 2009 with some confidence. For them, the Washington consensus, such as it is, is the only acceptable one and the disagreements within it, the only ones worth having. And here are its eight fundamentals:
*A belief that effective U.S. power must invariably be based on the threat of, or use of, dominant force, and so must centrally involve the U.S. military.
*A belief that all answers of any value are to be found in Washington among the serried ranks of officials, advisors, former officials, pundits, think-tank operators, and other inside-the-Beltway movers and shakers, who have been tested over the years and found never to have a surprise in them. Most of them are notable mainly for having been wrong so often. This is called "experience."
*A belief that the critics of Washington policy outside Washington and its consensus are, at best, gadflies, never worth seriously consulting on anything.
*A belief that the American people, though endlessly praised in political campaigns, are know-nothings who couldn't think their way out of a proverbial paper bag when it comes to the supposedly arcane science of foreign policy, and so would certainly not be worth consulting on "national security" matters or issues involving the sacred "national interest," which is, in any case, the property of Washington. Like Iraqis and Afghans, the American people need good (or even not so good) shepherds in the national capital to answer that middle-of-the-night ringing phone and rescue them from impending harm. (The very foolishness of Americans can be measured by opinion polls which indicated that a majority of them had decided by 2005 that all American troops should be brought home from Iraq at a reasonable speed and that the U.S. should not have permanent military bases in that country.)
*A belief that no other countries (or individuals elsewhere) have anything significant or original to offer when it comes to solving problems like the situation in Iraq (unless, of course, they agree with us). They are to be ignored, insists the Bush administration, or, say leading Democrats, "talked to" and essentially corralled into signing onto, and carrying out, the solutions we consider reasonable.
*A belief that local peoples are incapable of solving their own problems without the intercession of, or the guiding hand (or Hellfire missile) of, Washington, which means, of course, of the U.S. military.
*A belief that the United States -- whatever the problem -- must be an essential part of the solution, not part of the problem itself.
*And finally, a belief (though no one would ever say this) that the lives of those children of George Bush's wars of choice, already of an age to be given their first lessons in global "realism," don't truly matter, not when the Great Game of geopolitics and energy is at stake.
Of course, the most recent Washington solution, involving the endless military occupation (by whatever name) of alien lands, can "solve" nothing. The possibilities of genuine improvement in Iraq or Afghanistan under the ministrations of the U.S. military are probably nil. And yet, because the only solutions entertained are variations of the above, little better lurks in our future at this moment.
Who would want to speculate on just how old those children of March 19, 2003 will actually be before the Iraq War is ended? So here's my next question: What's wrong with this sentence?
On March 19, 2010, the date of the seventh anniversary of President Bush's invasion of Iraq, as surely as the sun rises in the East I'll be sitting here and we will still have...