The apologists of perpetual war in Iraq got lucky last week. The latest catastrophic fiasco -- the Iraqi government's face-saving surrender to a truce offered by resurgent Shiite militias -- was overshadowed here by meltdowns in the economy and sectarian battles inside the Democratic Party. From luck to spin. Today, the Bush administration gets to do what it does best: translate defeat at Arabs' hands into victory with an American accent.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of occupation forces in Iraq and President Bush's Man Friday there, appears before two Senate committees to canonize the 2007 troop escalation no matter how much the Shiite Awakening disagrees. The administration Petraeus is shilling for, like the strategy he's shelling out in Iraq, never was much concerned with reality; otherwise, we wouldn't still be lurching from calamity to curfew to standoff while calling it all a success. Adding irony to insurgency, all three presidential candidates sit on the two panels Petraeus will be reading his script for -- Hillary Clinton and John McCain on the Armed Services Committee, Barack Obama on the Foreign Relations Committee.
McCain has the advantage of sharing Petraeus' script writers, to whom facts are inferior to faith. Two weeks ago, in a Middle East trip designed to show off his knowledge of the region, McCain had to be corrected about al-Qaida's ties to Iran (it doesn't have any) and to Shiites (it loathes them). The clanger recalled his other visit to Iraq a year ago this week, when McCain, in a bulletproof vest, said you could "walk freely" through Baghdad. He had to be reminded by NBC News that Baghdadis generally don't get to stroll to the market with an escort of "100 American soldiers, three Black Hawk helicopters and two Apache gunships overhead." Or with bulletproof vests.
But as McCain said four years ago when he was cheering for Bush's war before he started pretending to criticize its execution, "We must fight. We must." Especially those liberals who'd put a stop to perpetual war to better focus on an increasingly Iraqi-looking economy here at home. So McCain will milk the troop escalation's imaginary gains for all their Thousand And One Night fantasies and give Petraeus some free advertising for his presidential run in the coming decade. Clinton and Obama won't do much better if their Iraqi scripts continue unchanged. The draw-downs they're talking about differ in degrees, not in policy, from those of the Bush-McCain-Petraeus axis of whatever.
Not one of them has yet come to terms with a reality the American occupation helped enable: In the Middle East, big-power bullying is bankrupt. As Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser to six secretaries of state in Arab-Israeli negotiations, concludes in a coming book that "small powers can't always best you, but they can outwit and outwait you."
That's the real story behind the Shiite uprising in Iraq. It's also the story of Hezbollah's stand-down of Israel in Lebanon in 2006, of Hamas' standoff of Israel in Gaza now and of the Taliban's standoff of NATO forces in Afghanistan. That's not to give those "small powers" credit, either for their agendas or for their means. What they all have in common, although somewhat less so in Hezbollah's case, is brutality, repression and Islamism (as opposed to Islam) -- as murderous a perversion of Islam, or any religion, as there is today. They have two other things in common: No matter what's thrown at them, none has been, or can be, defeated militarily. And with the Taliban's exception, they all despise al-Qaida, have popularly elected representation in their respective countries and know that political engagement trumps bombs any day. They know that the people electing them want them, even if that popularity is by default -- an inevitable reaction to the occupation's brutality and humiliation.
Yet in every case, Israel, the United States or NATO still act as if the long-term solutions they seek (in Palestine-Israel, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Afghanistan) can be attained without seriously engaging them politically -- not as inferiors, but as equals more legitimate than their occupiers.
For all the wishful talk you'll hear this week from the Petraeus show and the war apologists, and even from those, like Clinton and Obama, who pretend to be looking for solutions, little will change until they concede that there will be no peace except on Arabs' terms. To save himself, the occupier has a choice: submit to reality, or keep suffering its defeats while pretending that not losing is somehow success enough.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. His website is www.pierretristam.com.
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