Playing Politics With Iraq
By BOB HERBERT
If hell didn't exist, we'd have to invent it. We'd need a place to send the public officials who are playing politics with the lives of the men and women sent off to fight George W. Bush's calamitous war in Iraq.
The administration and its allies have been mercilessly bashing Democrats who argued that the U.S. should begin developing a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces. Republicans stood up on the Senate floor last week, one after another, to chant like cultists from the Karl Rove playbook: We're tough. You're not. Cut-and-run. Nyah-nyah-nyah!
"Withdrawal is not an option," declared the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, who sounded like an actor trying on personas that ranged from Barry Goldwater to General Patton. "Surrender," said the bellicose Mr. Frist, "is not a solution."
Any talk about bringing home the troops, in the Senate majority leader's view, was "dangerous, reckless and shameless."
But then on Sunday we learned that the president's own point man in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, had fashioned the very thing that ol' blood-and-guts Frist and his C-Span brigade had ranted against: a withdrawal plan.
Are Karl Rove and his liege lord, the bait-and-switch king, trying to have it both ways? You bet. And that ought to be a crime, because there are real lives at stake.
The first significant cut under General Casey's plan, according to an article by Michael Gordon in yesterday's Times, would occur in September. That, of course, would be perfect timing for Republicans campaigning for re-election in November. How's that for a coincidence?
As Mr. Gordon wrote:
"If executed, the plan could have considerable political significance. The first reductions would take place before this fall's Congressional elections, while even bigger cuts might come before the 2008 presidential election."
The general's proposal does not call for a complete withdrawal of American troops, and it makes clear that any withdrawals are contingent on progress in the war (which is going horribly at the moment) and improvements in the quality of the fledgling Iraqi government and its security forces.
The one thing you can be sure of is that the administration will milk as much political advantage as it can from this vague and open-ended proposal. If the election is looking ugly for the G.O.P., a certain number of troops will find themselves waking up stateside instead of in the desert in September and October.
I wonder whether Americans will ever become fed up with the loathsome politicking, the fear-mongering, the dissembling and the gruesome incompetence of this crowd. From the Bush-Rove perspective, General Casey's plan is not a serious strategic proposal. It's a straw in the political wind.
How many casualties will be enough? More than 2,500 American troops who dutifully answered President Bush's call to wage war in Iraq have already perished, and thousands more are struggling in agony with bodies that have been torn or blown apart and psyches that have been permanently wounded.
Has the war been worth their sacrifice?
How many still have to die before we reach a consensus that we've overpaid for Mr. Bush's mad adventure? Will 5,000 American deaths be enough? Ten thousand?
The killing continued unabated last week. Iraq is a sinkhole of destruction, and if Americans could see it close up, the way we saw New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, they would be stupefied.
Americans need to understand that Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq was a strategic blunder of the highest magnitude. It has resulted in mind-boggling levels of bloodshed, chaos and misery in Iraq, and it certainly hasn't made the U.S. any safer.
We've had enough clownish debates on the Senate floor and elsewhere. We've had enough muscle-flexing in the White House and on Capitol Hill by guys who ran and hid when they were young and their country was at war. And it's time to stop using generals and their forces under fire in the field for cheap partisan political purposes.
The question that needs to be answered, honestly and urgently (and without regard to partisan politics), is how best to extricate overstretched American troops — some of them serving their third or fourth tours — from the flaming quicksand of an unwinnable war.